Imagine, if you will, that Racing 92 require maximum points in their final two league games of the season to qualify for next season’s Champions Cup. Their last match is at home to struggling Bordeaux, surely a formality for the reigning Top 14 champions? But their penultimate game is away and Racing’s form on the road this season has been woeful. To date, just one win, and that against Bayonne, the basement boys.
The form book suggests the odds are against Racing but this away match is just up the road, against their Parisian rivals, and as of next season their new team-mates.
Racing’s trip to Stade Francais will be memorable, historic, emotional, intriguing. But above all, it will be problematical because of the potential for a conflict of interest.
On Monday, on what will surely be remembered as one of the most extraordinary days in professional rugby, it was announced that Stade Francais and Racing 92 would join forces next season to form one Parisian powerhouse club. At a press conference in the afternoon the two presidents, Thomas Savare of Stade and Jacky Lorenzetti of Racing, produced a slick performance of unity. The former said that the presidency would be on a rotating basis and for the first two seasons he would be in charge, a convenient declaration given that many see it not so much as a merger but more a Racing takeover.
Lorenzetti fielded questions about the composition of the squad, explaining that his coaches, Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit would remain in charge, and it would be their job to select the 45-man squad from the 63 players presently contracted to the two clubs. As to when that selection will occur, Lorenzetti said no announcement would be made “before the derby”, which falls on the last weekend in April, the inference being that players will be playing that day for their places in the new Paris club.
But why wait that long? Firstly it will only cause disquiet among the other clubs competing for a place in next season’s Champions Cup, but more importantly, players need to know as soon as possible if they’ll be among the fortunate 45 chosen to play for the new club. The presidents can’t expect them to sit on their hands for six weeks in the hope they’ll make the cut.
As for the conflict of interests that loom large in that Derby game, Thomas Savare rejected the idea that it could influence the result. “We’re going to play with all our force,” he declared. “The ethics of the sport are superior to all other considerations.”
‘Ethics’ was a word much in evidence on Monday as the news sunk in of the merger. After the initial shock came anger, from players and supporters, most of them aligned with Stade Francais. There was consternation, too, from the FFR which – contrary to the enthusiastic support offered by the LNR – expressed its “shock” at the news. There was clearly anger, too, on the part of president Bernard Laporte at the fact he hadn’t been warned, let alone consulted, about the merger. Laporte, who will meet the Stade Francais players on Tuesday afternoon, said that paramount in the merger were the “interests” of rugby and the “protection” of the men and women working for the two clubs.
The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, also expressed her dismay at the “method” of the merger, as well as its secrecy, and she will meet this week directors from both clubs. What she has to say to Stade’s representatives will be particularly important given that the Paris council subsidises Stade Francais to the tune of €800,000 a year and also spent €141m renovating the Stade Jean Bouin five years ago. There was similar concern on the part of the Hauts-de-Seine council, the region encompassing Racing, and which contributes €1.2m each year to the club. Patrick Devedjian, the regional president, said on Monday evening that “there are two issues on which I will not budge: the identity and the local roots”, adding that the ’92’ [the regional code] must be retained in any new logo.
Nonetheless, the reality is that both clubs are struggling financially. Stade Francais were close to bankruptcy in 2011 before the Savare family stepped in. They’ve poured money into the club but despite winning the Top 14 title in 2015, it’s been a constant battle to pull in spectators and attract sponsors. Paris just isn’t a sporting city. It has one top-flight football team compared to London’s five, Madrid’s three and Glasgow’s two. This season Stade’s attendances have plummeted 22% , while Racing – the reigning champs with a galaxy of stars – have dropped 13% to barely 9,000.
The move makes financial sense but it’s desperately sad to see what is – however it’s dressed up – the demise of Stade Francais, a club that won the first of its 14 French championship titles in 1893. But the real victims are the players, who arrived at training on Monday expecting a routine day, only to learn that they could soon be out of work. In selecting the squad, the two Laurents have not only got to comply with the Top 14’s €10m salary cap, but as of next season they must also ensure they have no more than 16 players ineligible for France in their squad. Of the 63 contracted players, 24 are foreign-qualified so in the coming days the telephone wires will be humming as agents start to call other clubs on behalf of their clients.
Professional rugby is a tough game, physically and emotionally.