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125 years of French rugby history swept away...

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125 years of French rugby history swept away in a single day

Fallout from the shock news that two of France’s oldest clubs are set to merge.

“We are aware that we have dropped a bombshell,” Stade Francais president Thomas Savare told reporters at a press conference following the shock announcement that the club was to merge with Paris rivals Racing 92.

It’s one of those phrases that should immediately enter the pantheon of sporting understatements, just below ‘That man is fast’ to describe Usain Bolt in full record-breaking flight. It’s fair to say the merger news has caused seismic ripples in the rugby world.

Once the shock had died down, some reports suggested the unification has been planned for a while; that the proposal was first put forward 10 months ago, while Racing 92 president Jacky Lorenzetti admitted that discussions have been moving rapidly for the past month-and-a-half.

Savare and Lorenzetti were surely aware of the irony of their choice of location for the sweeping away of 125 years of rugby history in Paris – the Jardins de Bagatelle played host to French rugby’s first championship final in 1892 … between Racing and Stade. They were definitely aware that fate had dealt them another irony – that the two clubs are to meet in the penultimate round of the regular season – because they mentioned it. What a way for these two old clubs to go.

First, the facts from the press conference: The clubs announced that, pending approval from France’s Ligue National de Rugby (LNR), they will merge from next season. The job of coaching the new side has fallen to Racing’s Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, with Stade Francais’ Gonzalo Quesada out of the equation following his decision to leave the club at the end of the season. The latter has since tweeted that he made up his mind to go without knowing of the plans, and was unaware of them prior to the announcement.

While the coaching decision was relatively bloodless, the combined playing staff of 90 has to be reduced to 45 to conform to league restrictions, not to mention ensuring the new club stays within French rugby’s salary cap. Savare said that he and Lorenzetti would work together to decide which players would be retained.

This means 45 more players, including a number who thought they were under contract for some time to come, will be looking for a new club in the coming weeks, and clubs across France and Europe will be watching with interest to see who suddenly becomes available.

As the ever-magnanimous Lorenzetti said: “We wanted to make this announcement early to allow all non-retained players to be able to prepare for their future.”

The as-yet unnamed Paris super-club will first play at Stade Francais’ current ground, Stade Jean Bouin, before moving to the 34,000-seat U Arena in October.

Lorenzetti told the press conference that he expects crowds of about 22,000 at domestic and European matches at the U Arena – even though Racing has a crowd average of just 8,863 this season, and Stade just 9,321. Last season, the biggest crowd the two sides managed was 20,000 at Stade Jean-Bouin for the Paris derby. 

Part of the problem is that rugby in France is a predominantly southern affair. The two Paris clubs are fighting a generally losing battle against the big-money lure of soccer’s Paris Saint-Germain.

While the LNR has yet to formally confirm the merger, its president, Paul Goze, hailed the “work undertaken over the years by presidents Savare and Lorenzetti,” adding: “Having strongly invested in their clubs, they wish now to pool their forces and take a new step in constructing a strong economic model.”

His statement hints strongly that the Ligue’s involvement will be little more than a rubber-stamping exercise.

At the press conference, Lorenzetti was at pains to make it clear the move was not a takeover. He said: “If you want to make us say that Racing has bought Stade Français, then it’s no.”

But rumours and stories about Stade’s situation have been circulating for some time. Last November, it was reported that Savare was seeking to sell the club, and had imposed a belt-tightening regime to make it more attractive to investors, while a look at the club’s transfer dealings hint at something in the ether. A total of 10 players have confirmed their departure, including members of the 2015 Brennus-winning side such as Hugo Bonneval, Raphaël Lakafia, Rabah Slimani and Jérémy Sinzelle; another 10 reach the end of their contract with no apparent hint of interest in renewal, while arrivals have been few and far between.

So there is no wonder that not everyone is convinced by Lorenzetti’s claim – or the show of affectionate solidarity between equal partners for the cameras. This deal is being sold as a merger, but it bears a lot of the hallmarks of a buyout.

And not everyone is happy. While all has so far been pretty quiet from players and staff on the Racing front, the same cannot be said about their opposite numbers in the Stade camp.

Second row Paul Gabrillagues, who signed his first professional contract with the club early in 2016 told Facebook group Supporters du Stade Français Paris: “This is not a merger, it’s the takeover of the Stade Français by Racing… the death of our club, the club of Paris. I will not participate in this masquerade. Show yourselves and show that we are many to love this club.”

Veteran lock Pascal Pape may lead a players’ strike that could hit upcoming Stade fixtures, beginning with this weekend’s trip to Castres Olympique. In a tweet issued shortly after a meeting with club officials at which players were informed of the merger plans, he tweeted:

“Today my sadness is so great that I prefer not to speak. I will communicate soon.”

He later tweeted a call to fans to join a demonstration against the plans outside Stade Jean-Bouin on Monday. That call was retweeted by Sergio Parisse to his 57,500 followers, while France squad members and Stade Francais players Jonathan Danty and Djibril Camara were both released from the France squad to attend the protest. Meanwhile, a number of Stade supporters have already said they will boycott matches for the rest of the season.

Another player currently with the national side, prop Rabah Slimani, tweeted: “Who could kill all that history, a whole club. Players, the coaching staff, and the administrative staff. All the young people, the supporters.”

Bonneval’s feelings need no translation:

And Sekou Macalou simply added: “Without me.”

The mairie of Paris is said to be ‘furious’ at the news. The city subsidises Stade Francais to the tune of €800,000 a year and funded a €160million redevelopment of Stade Jean-Bouin, which was completed in 2013. It is no surprise, then, that city authorities have demanded assurances that the ground will not be left empty.

The city is unconvinced that the tenancy of Ligue 2 soccer side Red Star – who started a groundshare at the stadium this season – will be enough to maintain the stadium.

FFR president Bernard Laporte, a former coach at Stade Francais, is said to be ‘disappointed’ at the clubs’ decision, and was due to meet club owner Savare on Tuesday, where he was expected to make his opinion clear. It has also been reported that he had floated the idea of creating an amateur side to play at Stade Jean-Bouin, so that the Stade Francais club may survive as a separate entity.

Away from the French capital, Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal, who’s never been afraid of a sly dig or two, especially at the expense of arch-rival Lorenzetti, said: “The takeover of Stade Francais by Racing, because that’s what it is, is just being dressed as a merger.”

“One empty stadium plus one empty stadium will perhaps make one half-empty stadium.”

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125 years of French rugby history swept away in a single day
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