Biarritz and Perpignan face off for automatic promotion to the Top 14 this weekend
“If you want to watch the ProD2, you have to watch the whole competition because it’s like a series,” says Perpignan back-rower Damien Chouly. “It’s like Game of Thrones. Every episode, there’s something happening, and this year was something like that.”
Is the French second tier the craziest league in rugby? It certainly feels like every weekend there is at least one clip from the ProD2 that has outsiders typing out Whisky Tango Foxtrot. And if the make-up of the latest European Champions Cup semis and final had pundits pondering if the Top 14 would go on to enjoy an era of continental dominance, the division just below generates storylines every bit as arresting.
There are grand old names on the wane; regathering powers; smalltown clubs weaponising synergy; at-the-death winners from rank unfancied sides; more than a smidge of political chaos off the field.
And on Saturday 5 June, two household names from the South-west, Perpignan and Biarritz, will wrestle their way towards promotion. The winner of the ProD2 final will gain automatic promotion to the Top 14 and the loser goes on to a play-off with the 13th team in the Top 14. The last-placed team in the top division is automatically relegated.
But what sets this league apart?
Television presenter Cecile Gres, who cut her teeth covering the ProD2, offers a view: “It has always been more authentic and the stakes have never killed the games. The atmosphere around this competition is cooler and more spontaneous.
“There are a lot of young players who want to be spotted, former Top 14 stars who want to end their career on a good note, brillant players who know this championship by heart. Thomas Ramos, Demba Bamba, Anthony Bouthier, Vincent Rattez, Kilian Geraci were all in ProD2 a few years ago. And you can find famous profiles in the staff teams, like Christian Labit, David Aucagne, Perry Freshwater, Remi Talès, Stéphane Glas…
“Finally, the playing level across the teams makes the ProD2 a hotly-contested competition.”
The finest talents in the competition don’t just ascend into the Top 14. After a five-year stint in Béziers, back-row Karl Wilkins will be returning to the UK, after signing with Northampton Saints. And he has seen some of the more… traditional elements of the division.
“This was actually our first season with TMO,” he says, wryly. “There used to be more punch-ups and a lot more amateur-era stuff, when I first joined Béziers, on the discipline front, because people could get away with stuff.
“That was a big change, and obviously there were no fans this year, but you’d get massive crowds for particular games. They could make big influences on the game, on refereeing decisions. It did make playing away from home a nightmare and playing at home – not easier, but maybe a little more comfortable, with some decisions.”
Asked whether there was a deluge of madcap moments, as the stream of highlight clips would have you believe, Wilkins adds: “In the winter months it can be a bit slower, but if you look at the (league’s) Twitter page, there’s always at least one try a week that’s just mad.
“It’s normally because the games are so close, so one team’s got to go for it towards the end. One slipped ball (and things can change). Especially this year, I think, there’s been more good play from the backs, some really good moves that have gone the length of the field. I couldn’t tell you why, but this year it feels like the whole level has stepped up.”
Wilkins knows the reputation set in stone: that the league should just be a place to turn young puppy-fat plodders into hardened forwards. Chouly says the pace is very often slower than the Top 14 where he carved out such a successful career. He and Wilkins both make a point of mentioning the long, arduous nature of a 30-game season. Remember, that is purely league-focussed, as there are no European commitments, no domestic cup on top of that.
But Chouly also says that while eight to ten teams are capable of competing for promotion, the others can still pull off sensational results. The 46-cap Frenchman remembers last season, when freshly demoted Perpignan were bushwacked by Rouen, who had just come up from the Nationale league, losing to them 12-10.
Asked for her favourite moments of this season, Gres calls up the semi-final over the weekend, when Biarritz beat Vannes with a try at the death. She recalls a classic between Perpignan and Oyonnax, while Aurillac ensured their future in the division with a last-second kick against Colomiers. And of course there was that Lion King moment, when Josaia Raisuqe lifted the referee at the end of a Beziers game at Nevers.
One other try viewers may recall was the round 18 mind-bender between Colomiers and Biarritz. In the centre for the visitors that day was All Black Francis Saili.
“That was most definitely different, man!” the Kiwi tells Rugby World. “We were down (on the scoreboard) and they caught the ball and could have just run down the time and just kicked the ball out, but for some reason the half-back just gave us the ball.
“If you give a team an edge, we’ll take that. With the team we have, with the players and personnel we have, we’ll definitely take the opportunity. I definitely experienced that for the first time and it was awesome. The whole game felt like a bit of a grudge match and I’d heard they were a team who would try to grind you out, they had some dirty plays, and I thought, ‘Okay.’
“For us to score at the death made it all the sweeter. How we scored the try was just ridiculous. It felt like the whole team touched the ball, cross-kicks, throwing it around like it’s a basketball. They missed the kick, one of our boys tackled their player, one of our boys pounced on the ball to score the try. It was one of those ones where you look back and say, ‘Jeez, how did we pull that off?!’
“That’s what happens when you let the shackles loose and just let boys play. There’s a bit of fluidity. I was surprised with the skill level, from the French boys especially (after leaving Harlequins to join the ProD2). There is so much skill and they’ve just got raw talent. I’ve obviously been able to see that first hand and it’s been awesome.”
Saili agrees with Wilkins that there is a growing narrative that the skill level is rising. Perhaps growing budgets help, and some tell you there is obviously an arms race going on. This doesn’t always work out for players either, and there are many from outside of France with tales to tell of aborted stints on the continent. Then there was the wild story earlier in the season about team owners looking to move the famed Biarritz side to… Lille. That one soon fizzled out, as did the tale of a takeover in Beziers.
But if you are to make the most of time in the second division, you have to embrace the madness. As Saili says: “When I first came in, I had a moment of self-reflection and was like, ‘Look, I can’t come in and reinvent the way these guys play. Because this is probably what they do, probably what’s been implemented for such a long time.’
“I guess the only way is to just make small influences or players or coaches, sit down and just get onto the same page. Obviously there are times when I have been frustrated but at the same time, you just have to let the Frenchies do their thing and make small influences where you can.”
Don’t be mad that the roller coaster doesn’t have any harnesses; just hope you are going fast enough to enjoy the loop-de-loop. In the opening round of the season, Biarritz beat Perpignan 21-12 and Saili scored the first try. In April, Perpignan beat Biarritz 29-27.
What odds would you give for a truly bats*** ProD2 final between the two?
The Craziest ProD2 moments in 2020-21
Sometimes France’s second tier is portrayed as the Wild West, writes James Harrington. A lawless, crazy, anything-goes place where sometimes, if you’re lucky, rugby may happen.
We tried to disprove this calumny. We really did. But, well, we couldn’t. Here are just a few reasons from this season alone that show the ProD2 is the craziest place on the pro rugby planet – except for, possibly, France’s third-tier Nationale…
Because even apparently successful 5m lineout moves can suddenly turn unexpected.
Because nine seconds is sometimes all it takes…
Because the ball can turn into a bar of soap…
Because mauls can achieve escape velocity…
Because… well, forget the Ash Splash…
Because quick thinking…
Because hookers dummy and flankers think they’re Phil Bennett…
Because, sometimes – quite often actually – it’s simply magnificent…
What do you make of the ProD2? How does the English Championship compare? Let us know your views via email@example.com or hit us up on social media.
Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.