Agen's season from hell: Airport fights, walks outs and conceding 42 points a game
Demolition work on the tribune Ferrasse at Stade Armandie began on Monday. It’s impossible not to see it as a metaphor for the Agen Top 14 season. It had started reasonably well. Gabriel Ibitoye had scored two tries in under ten minutes on his French league debut and Agen were leading at home – but then their season started to fall apart.
That brief happy moment was 54 minutes into the opening game of the 2020/21 Top 14 season on September 5. It may have been the last time optimism dared show its face at the proud club in this campaign.
Opponents Castres – kicking off a season of lows and highs of their own – would retake the lead within 15 more minutes and head home with the win. Agen had to settle for a losing bonus point for their first-match efforts and their campaign has been downhill ever since.
Having joined from Harlequins at the start of the season, Ibitoye would be a Montpellier player by mid-January. If reports in France are accurate, he will leave the Challenge Cup winners at the end of the season. That is possibly another metaphor.
Whether it is or not, ten minutes into their 25th and penultimate Top 14 match of the season (against Racing 92), Agen hit the 1,000 points conceded mark. The Paris side scored another 49 before the referee, mercifully, blew the final whistle. For context, the previous worst-record in the Top 14 was 837, conceded by Toulon in 2005/06 – a season before Mourad Boudjellal poured his money into the club and built a legacy.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 15, 2021
Agen have lost every game they have played this season. They won’t win their final game of the season at Lyon on Saturday evening where the 1,100 barrier will be at risk. They have picked up just two league points. Their first was in that opening-day defeat against Castres, the second came a month later. Even Bourgoin, who finished with six points at the end of a horror 2011 season in which they were docked five points, recorded two wins and six points. That was the previous lowest total.
Heading into their final Top 14 match, Agen are conceding an average of 42 points a game. In response, they have scored just 308 Top 14 points, an average of a little more than twelve, and crossed their opponents’ try line just 29 times. They have led their opponents for just 175 minutes this season. Even 13th-placed Pau have been in the lead for nearly 500 minutes.
In early November, after a season league record 71-5 loss at Bordeaux, president Jean-Francois Fonteneau hit the panic button. Coaching duo Christophe Laussucq and Remy Vaquin were relieved of their head coach duties. The players were briefly put in charge of coaching themselves while he worked on finding a replacement.
Regis Sonnes, who had been working as a consultant with France U20s after a successful stint as forwards coach at Toulouse, arrived a couple of weeks later. Fortunes failed to turn around and it’s no surprise that the end of this nightmare for players and staff can’t come soon enough. “I can’t wait for the end,” Sonnes told reporters before the latest defeat against Racing. “I can’t wait for next season.”
President Fonteneau added: “It’s been a season without any lightning,” he told L’Equipe recently. “We are a team in pain, we see psychological suffering in the players, they are losing their self-esteem. Little details become big stones. I have had the impression that we were on the downward slope all the time, it’s a black year.”
The players, too, accept their share of the blame. “The hardest thing to accept is to see that we hurt and that we disappoint the people who love this club,” said young back-rower Gauthier Maravat.
The reputational damage started early and has proved impossible to stop. Explaining why he had chosen to part ways with Laussucq and Vaquin in November, Fonteneau said at the time: “It seems to me that this staff was at the end of this adventure. The spiral of failure is sometimes difficult to stop. I had an excellent relationship with the coaching staff, but we had to act.”
At the same time, three players – Jordan Puletua, Sam Vaka and JJ Taulagi – were put on gardening leave for disciplinary reasons. They have not returned to the club. Two more players, Paul Ngauamo and Hugo Verdu, left after a fight at Treviso airport following Agen’s only ‘success’ of the season – a 28-0 Challenge Cup walkover win because of Covid-19 cases among the Italian squad.
#TOP14 – J25
Le @CABCLRUGBY et le @MHR_officiel assurent le maintien ? pour le reste il faudra patienter encore une journée avant d'avoir le verdict… et le suspense est insoutenable ? Voici le classement ? pic.twitter.com/xmLXJ3dBAn
— TOP 14 Rugby (@top14rugby) May 29, 2021
Including Ibitoye and Ngauamo, who joined Castres after being told his services were no longer required, some 22 first team players are set to leave Agen by the end of this Top 14 campaign. Another twelve are out of contract, with no news on their future. Meanwhile, just eleven new faces are set to join the club for its return season in the Pro D2.
There are more changes in the staff, too. After twelve seasons at the club, physical trainer Matthieu Barreau handed in his notice in early May and will leave at the end of the season. “There are some black sheep in this club,” he told regional paper La Depeche du Midi. “I’m not afraid to say it and I do not see myself working with people like that.”
The club will rely heavily on its academy next season and beyond to fill the hole left by the exodus. In Sonnes’ defence, the problems didn’t miraculously disappear when he arrived. Players were still injured, morale was at a low and players were at one another’s throats.
But Djalil Narjissi, who was on the Sonnes’ ticket as forwards coach for four weeks before leaving after a spat with the boss, reckoned Sonnes should bear some part of the blame, his opinion of the coach leaving little to the imagination.
— SUA LG (@agen_rugby) June 1, 2021
“He is not made to be number one,” he told Midi Olympique recently, breaking his silence after several months. “At the time when he was training me in Agen (2005/2006), I liked him. But he was number three back then. He only took care of the touch and in this area he was competent. Now it is different.
“With him, everything is focused on enjoyment, the well-being of the players… but when you have your head upside down after 20 defeats, you need something else and in Agen, it was an electric shock that was necessary… We disagreed: I preferred to leave before there was a catastrophe.”
Even back then, it looks like it was too late to save Agen’s season. Sonnes may say he is in it for the long haul, but more than a few are questioning whether he can pick up the ashes of a club and reform it into one that can first survive in the Pro D2 then find a way to return to the Top 14.
Their one big hope is the demolition of tribune Ferrasse is part of wider development work on Stade Armandie, which includes a new high performance centre. The club’s academy is rated the third-best in France. Some 50 players who grew up in Agen colours now play professional rugby in the Top 14 or Pro D2.
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Avant le début de sa destruction, ce sont l’ensemble des joueurs et du staff qui ont aidé pour retirer la structure restante ! ???? pic.twitter.com/SSADuSwVmg
— SUA LG (@agen_rugby) May 31, 2021
There is no shortage of talent at the club, then. It’s simply a matter of harnessing it, developing it and keeping it. Of course, ‘simply’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that last sentence.
Club legend Philippe Sella is keeping the faith. “Eight or ten years ago, a group was rebuilt and it worked,” he told Actus Rugby. “At some point, there was a downturn but every group has its adventures. In that slump, there may have been one or two years that were a bit more complex, but a group was rebuilt each time and we got there. Just because it worked every time doesn’t mean we can do it again, but hopefully we will.”
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