The reigning European champions, a Top 14 giant and a club unique amongst peers. This is a guide to Stade Rochelais – first featured in Rugby World magazine
How much have things evolved at La Rochelle in recent memory?
“Oh yes, some huge change,” says club sporting director Robert Mohr, the German who played from 2002 to 2012 and captained them into the Top 14 for a short stint in 2010.
Stade Rochelais are the reigning champions of Europe. But their recent history is one of steady climbing. In the early Noughties there were a couple of wins in their now-defunct version of a league cup. Then promotion, relegation, another promotion and then more recently a march up the Top 14 table, a European Challenge Cup runners-up medal, a losing final in the Champions Cup and then a town-shuddering win.
According to Mohr, everything has been part of a sustainable plan. “There are moments when people live in the past – with Jean-Baptiste Élissalde or that generation who stayed so long in the top division. We always got compared to them. So we had to make them forget in a way.
“We changed a lot of coaches. When Serge Milas was coach, we really created an identity where we played a lot – we didn’t have exceptional players but we’d been together a long time, so we knew each other very well. And we were always in or near the final of the second division then. Meanwhile, the club progressed a lot as well.
“We built a new stand. We created new sources of revenue. We improved year by year. It took a long time. We got promoted in 2010. Then relegated straightaway. But we created a big fanbase, even in the second division (ProD2). And then it increased with the promotion (to the Top 14) in 2015.
“In between that time though, we wrote our first project for the club, where we fixed ourselves long-term objectives to build the club, to avoid going up and down again. We wanted to be ready when we got promoted, to have a budget that allowed us to stay up; have a stadium that creates its own revenue; to have the staff and also a competitive team, and an academy that allows us to develop talent we can integrate into the first team.”
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One of the problems back in the day, Mohr says, is that coach turnover meant IP walking out the door every time. So today, the club zero in on having something organic there, where coaches add to what has been built but the club is not wholly dependent on them.
Then we get to a concept of separation – or let’s call it a firm focus on ‘core competencies’. It came down to a reorganisation where Ronan O’Gara is the head of professional rugby and everything on the playing side comes down to him. But Mohr oversees the development of the project in the middle to long term, including the recruitment of staff and players.
Ownership, though, is a very different thing in La Rochelle. And this is what fans in the English-speaking world might find interesting. Because their fanbase own the club.
Vincent Merling has been the president of the club for a whopping 30 years – a quiet man who, almost uniquely amongst the French, doesn’t court headlines. He has a successful coffee business of his own and in recent years has stepped back. He is a custodial figure. But he is not the owner.
“The club belongs to every member and that’s very important,” Mohr adds.
“That’s not to compare to other projects, I’m not judging. It’s just different. And it only works if you’re not here for yourself; if you put the club first and do everything for the development of the club. The biggest thing for Vincent is to create sustainability. So we don’t do stupid things to win something quickly.”
According to English fly-half Ryan Lamb, who was at the club from 2017 to 2019, Merling understands the need to let others cook, and he’ll leave them to it. This is a guy who played for the club many moons ago and who has coached minis and juniors lately.
As Lamb adds: “Vincent is approachable and he speaks decent English, which obviously helps – but he wouldn’t speak in English unless you’re struggling, which I thought was quite good! It just kind of gets you involved with the culture of it.”
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That culture rubs off. The new training base opening just as Lamb arrived might help grow his appreciation, as would playing the first home game with the new stand as 16,000 maniacs roared themselves hoarse and tried their best to rock it off its axis as the team obliterated Clermont. After all of that, Lamb reflects and tells Rugby World: “It’s a very special place. To be honest, we’re still talking about it now, my family, and we would like to have stayed out there.”
There’s just something about this seaport on the Atlantic coast. It gets under your skin. Uini Atonio left New Zealand for them in 2011, at just 21. He’s still there. Levani Botia arrived in 2014 and is in with the bricks. And more than this, others wax evangelical about it.
“I first heard of La Rochelle in 2014,” says two-time World Cup winner Victor Vito, the Kiwi who finished up his career with les Maritimes. “Jason Eaton had already left New Zealand and was playing with La Rochelle. I was still playing for the Hurricanes and he came home for a bit and we caught up for a coffee. He told me La Rochelle was a cool little spot. The rugby was getting better, but then a whole bunch of good guys could make something happen.
“I was at least a year off even thinking of leaving New Zealand, with the World Cup the next year, so it was good to know but I’d just keep that in the pipeline for whatever might come around.
“Sure enough, towards the World Cup time in 2015, I decided it was a good time to leave and La Rochelle and Ulster were the two clubs with the best offers. In the end, having Jason Eaton here and seeing some of the rugby I’d seen them playing (on YouTube), I thought it was quite an exciting project to be a part of, not just on the field but off it as well.”
He signed off his playing time with a big win for the town, soaking up the Heineken European Cup victory over Leinster. It was a special moment. But he also believes that La Rochelle have become a great side by playing their way. He talks of a La Rochelle DNA. Willingness to run is mentioned.
But in keeping with the evolutionary desire Mohr voices, Vito accepts that kicking prowess has been built in too – a direct response to defences becoming more cohesive in recent years. And of course, you cannot thrive in France without a strong lineout or scrum.
Lamb tells us the style of play is easy to fall into, once you crack the language. Opponents must be sick of seeing it, these yellow and black waves crashing. Vito adds another little wrinkle to this too, though, saying: “There’s also this spirit of La Rochelle. There’s a bit of a history of being a rebellious town (being the site of the last Huguenot rebellion against the French crown). They’ve pretty much always had a chip on their shoulder. So it kind of makes sense, with the way we have come from nothing and how we are always trying to fight.”
In those days, the rebels not only fought off Cardinal Richelieu’s forces but fittingly also held off English fleets. The port was the frontline of an ongoing war.
Laterally, the harbour has been transformed into a party zone. Who can forget the scenes after the recent Heineken Cup win, when the team bus was barely visible through a sea of people and fog of flares. And as Mohr explains to us, the Vieux Port has a history of hosting giddy fans.
“When we got promoted in 2010, we didn’t know what was going to happen in La Rochelle. So we drove back on the bus from playing in Brive, took our time, had a few beers. We finally arrived back in La Rochelle and there was no one on the streets and we thought that was very weird.
“We got to the harbour at around 2am and saw all those people, there were 25,000 people there they say. We got off the bus and there was nothing left to drink at the harbour. They were out of beers.”
It’s an incredible anecdote that shows the scenes in the summer were nothing new. But remember: evolution. The team that stands still gets surpassed. Fans need to be grabbed by the attention and shaken, constantly. So Mohr, with his business hat on, adds: “There’s not evidence that it’s going to stay that way. The budgets increase, the quality of players increase, but it’s a community project. So the challenge now is to keep it as a community project but go into a new era that is much more professional, with much more at stake.”
Lamb tells us that “the players know they’re very lucky to have that type of fanbase” but it’s heartening to hear the club still want to offer them more. Out there, so far from their nearest Top 14 rival, Bordeaux-Bègles, they have reared something unique. And in a weird way, everyone wants the club owners to be partying non-stop. To feel rewarded.
Who can blame ‘em. The town business is thriving. Embrace the change.
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