It is safe to say it has been an unusual week in French rugby – and little of what has happened has troubled the positive side of the good/bad spectrum.
The shock that followed quickly gave way to anger and prompted an indefinite player strike as well as an outcry on social media. Players and staff at Top 14 rivals Toulon wore pink armbands to show their support for Stade’s players at their game against Grenoble on Sunday.
Even Les Bleus’ best Six Nations’ finish in years, with that 100th-minute victory over Wales, only managed to add the faintest veneer of respectability on French rugby, coming as it did amid chaotic scenes at Stade de France, and tainted as it was by allegations of biting and faked injuries.
After this particular week that was, French rugby could have been forgiven for wanting to run away and hide for a little while. It was not going to be so lucky.
Less than 24 hours after the events at Stade de France, an open letter from Racing 92 president Jacky Lorenzetti was posted on the Top 14 side’s website and on social media.
In it, Lorenzetti revealed that the planned union with Stade Francais had been called off – prompting in equal measure the social media equivalent of cheers, and scathing comments about the plan, French rugby and the French in general.
Stade’s player strike was quickly called off, after less than a week.
“I have decided to give up this beautiful project,” Lorenzetti said in the letter, in which he defended the plan but conceded that, maybe, the timing was not right. “I have heard and understood the reservations … the social, human, sporting conditions are not met. Perhaps it was the right thing too soon,” he wrote.
“The future of Stade Français will be written without us and I wish them the best.”
His partner in the merger plan, Stade’s Thomas Savare, said in a separate statement: “I have heard the emotion, surprise and incomprehension of supporters, players and members of our association.
“I have also heard of their deep attachment to the independence of Stade Francais – and this attachment comes before all other considerations.”
This may not be the last we will hear of the merger plan, however. That ‘right thing too soon’ line is haunting.
The statements from Lorenzetti and Savare pre-empted a meeting planned for Monday, after the LNR postponed the games involving the two clubs at the weekend – Racing were due to travel to Montpellier, while Stade were also supposed to be away, at Castres – after an initial meeting on Friday.
But they also revealed something else: the apparently precarious position of Stade Francais.
Savare admitted to Reuters that he cannot afford to keep the historic club afloat. It is no secret that he has been trying to sell Stade for some time, and has been engaged in bout of a belt-tightening after investing €20million of his own money since buying the club, against the wishes of some of his family, in 2011.
Already, a number of young French players who made up the Top 14 title-winning team of 2014/15 are on their way out. Rabah Slimani will join Clermont next season; Hugo Bonneval and Raphael Lakafia are on their way to Toulon; Jules Plisson, it is rumoured, could follow Geoffrey Doumayrou to La Rochelle; others may well follow, while coach Gonzalo Quesada has also said this campaign will be his last.
Players come and players go, but the churn out of Stade at the moment is unusually high. It’s almost an exodus. The number of players due to come in is minimal in comparison.
And now, pay-TV broadcaster Canal Plus, which this year agreed to pay €97million a year for exclusive rights to the Top 14 in France between 2019 and 2023, has claimed that Savare has three months find a buyer, otherwise Stade risks being bumped down to the amateur leagues.
You may think selling a Top 14 club would be easy. When Mourad Boudjellal talked about selling Toulon, he was reportedly inundated with offers to take over a side deep in the heart of the rugby-mad south of the country. The problem for Savare is that Stade is not based in the rugby-mad south. It’s in a city where sport is simply not a religion – Paris only appears able to support one major soccer team (compare that to, for example, London). The inconvenient truth is two Top 14 rugby clubs in the capital may arguably be one too many.
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