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After sidestepping disaster Biarritz are plotting route out of the woods

Former French rugby player Shaun Hegarty (L) and Biarritz Olympique president Jean-Baptiste Aldige address a press conference at the Aguilera stadium in Biarritz, south-western France, on April 5, 2024. Biarritz Olympique, a monument of French rugby mired at the bottom of Pro D2, is to be taken over by its former player Shaun Hegarty and his associates, the Basque club's president announced on April 5, 2024. (Photo by GAIZKA IROZ / AFP) (Photo by GAIZKA IROZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Gears shifted at historical French rugby giants Biarritz, after French rugby’s financial watchdog finally accepted the club’s financial viability and confirmed its ProD2 status next season, weeks after it had been sold for €1.

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Shaun Hegarty, Flip Van Der Merwe and Marc Baget bought the club for the symbolic sum in early April, signalling an end to a turbulent period in the history of Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque.

Or, so fans hoped. But the turmoil continued off the pitch a while longer, even after the players and now-Portugal head coach Simon Mannix successfully scrapped their way to ProD2 survival on it.

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A lack of clarity over money was enough to worry the financial watchdog of French professional rugby, the Autorité de Régulation du Rugby (A2R), which summoned the club’s new bosses for a crunch meeting to explain exactly where the promised funds were coming from.

Without A2R approval, Biarritz risked being sent down to the amateur leagues, while Rouen – relegated on a dramatic final night of the regular ProD2 season in May – would be offered a reprieve.

Almost immediately after that documents-on-the-table talks, the club released a statement on its social media channels saying that it had ‘presented all the guarantees requested’, and insisted that A2R ‘should confirm’ the club would remain in the ProD2.

There was still a tense wait. Regional newspaper Sud Ouest reported A2R wanted more than verbal promises before it would rubber-stamp the club’s ProD2 status forms.

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But Biarritz were confident. Before official confirmation that they would remain in French rugby’s second tier, which arrived six days after the meeting, the club unveiled former Munster backrow and ex-Toulon defence coach James Coughlan as sporting director, with Boris Bouhraoua as head coach.

One of the former’s first jobs was, it was reported, to tell players and staff that salaries due to be paid on June 5 would be delayed a few days.

Despite this hiccup, however, A2R provisionally agreed Biarritz was a viable going rugby concern. Owed salaries were paid, as money turned up. And gears shifted.

It’s a slow, steady start. The owners don’t expect to be at full throttle for some time. But they hope to be going in the right direction at least. And there are still budget matters to sort out.

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Coughlan announced in a press conference the day after A2R’s approval that Piula Fa’asalele will join from Toulouse this summer. Within the following 24 hours, Kylian Jaminet, from Nevers, and Arthur Bonneval, from Brive, were confirmed as heading to southwest France.

Clermont hooker Yohan Beheregaray, Oyonnax backrow Filimo Taofifenua, and Montauban winger Bastien Guillemin are also expected at Parc des Sports Aguilera next season, with more new signings expected to fill holes left by a dozen or so confirmed departures, while contract renewals that uncertainty had delayed are now being confirmed.

But rebuilding a senior squad for a new ProD2 campaign that kicks off in August is just one part of a bigger whole that club president Hegarty is now starting to speak about more openly.

Bouhraoua’s appointment is key, even over Coughlan. He joins from a spell as director of Stade Francais’ academy, and previously coached rugby at Napier School in New Zealand. The pair’s focus beyond day-to-day senior squad matters, will be on the academy production line to develop ProD2-ready players.

As Coughlan told journalists: “We want to train players and keep them at the club. The aim is for 30 percent of our players to [have come through the age grades] at the club.”

This is priority number one for the next three seasons. Importantly, it will, in turn, help with budgetary matters.

Every club in the ProD2 and Top 14 must submit an annual budget to A2R for approval – and the watchdog will be especially interested in Biarritz’s budget, and will ask awkward questions. “[Biarritz] is back on the same path as all the clubs … exchanges with us throughout June and July to check whether announced budgets are achievable,” an A2R spokesperson told Sud Ouest recently.

“For the moment, Biarritz’s budget is incomplete.”

The new bosses are planning an initial overall budget, of which the playing budget is a percentage, of around €9 million a year for the next three years, while they work to put the club on a more sound financial footing.

A representative of billionaire Pierre Edouard Stérin, the 104th richest person in France, who has initially invested an estimated €3 million into the project, said: “We want to reconcile Shaun’s sporting ambitions with profitability of the infrastructure, to provide the club with the resources it needs to succeed … so that the club has the means to have a financial base that will mean it does not have to go to the A2R every year.”

As it stands, the new owners, backed by a financial trust – a first for professional rugby in France – has a three-year, a five-year, and an eight-year plan.

“We don’t want to spend money we don’t have,” general manager Arnaud Dubois told reporters at the same press conference. “But, just because we have a humble budget doesn’t mean we have no ambition.

“[Biarritz] has gone through some dark periods. We’ve set ourselves a period of three sports seasons to stabilise it … [firstly] we want to establish a strong base.”

During that first three-year period, improving pathways to senior rugby through the age-grade set-up, which is run by an amateur association linked to the professional club that also holds its FFR registration, will be the focus of the owners’ attention as much as the coaches. It’s stage one of the three-stage, eight-year vision.

The plan is, Hegarty said, that the second phase will focus on redeveloping the past-its-sell-by stadium at Aguilera. After that, he said, “we’ll be able to consider moving up to the higher echelons and rediscovering the passion and adventure [Biarritz] has known in the past.”

Big plans, then. But big issues to overcome, too. That said, all things being equal, a shiny, new Biarritz, at a shiny, new Parc des Sports Aguilera, expects to be back in the French top-flight in a decade. Watch this Basque space.

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1 Comment
C
C.D. 33 days ago

I've been a BO supporter for over two decades and this past season was the toughest I've ever experienced as a sports fan in general. I'm relieved that things are finally pointing upwards.

Also, it's good to see an English source finally covering this story in detail.

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