How have Stade Francais gone from French champions to relegation battlers?
It’s never nice to see a good man suffer, which is why the disintegration of Stade Francais this season has been so painful. Eleven months ago Gonzalo Quesada led his side to the pinnacle of French rugby, beating Clermont at the Stade de France in the Top 14 final.
Since that heady night in June, just about everything has gone wrong for Quesada as his side have become trapped in a downward spiral that could yet see them relegated.
Since the Top 14 came into existence in 2005 no reigning champion has failed to reach the play-offs the following season, let alone be relegated to the ProD2. But that’s the danger now facing Stade Francais after another defeat at the weekend – their fourth league reverse on the bounce – allied to wins for Agen and Oyonnax.
Stade are now only 11 points clear of the former and ten ahead of the latter, and Saturday’s visitors to the Stade Jean-Bouin are Oyonnax in a game that will have a huge bearing on the relegation battle.
But how have Stade gone from title winners to relegation scrappers?
When Quesada spoke to Rugby World at the start of this season, the former Argentina fly-half explained his theory behind their unexpected title success: “When I arrived at Stade I established a framework that set out how we would work and train, the rules we’d respect, squad discipline, and our playing philosophy,” he said. “But I also created within the framework the space for players to be responsible for their own destinies. In the first season it was all new to them and it wasn’t until the start of the second season that I started to see they believed in what we were trying to achieve.”
Stade’s squad this season has changed little to the one that stormed to the Top 14 title 12 months ago; the only difference is that key backs such as Morné Steyn and Jonathan Danty have been unable to reproduce their form of 2015, while the pack – upon which Stade built their title-winning success – has asserted nothing like the dominance of old.
Rabah Slimani, Sergio Parisse, Pascal Papé and Antoine Burban have not been at their best, and it was Burban who, in an interview with Midi Olympique, pinpointed another subtle difference between the Stade of 2016 and the Stade of 2015. Asked if he and his team-mates had lost their ‘insouciance’ of 12 months ago, the flanker replied: “Yes, perhaps. We were on a cloud last year. Now, we’re 12th, we’re doubting, asking ourselves questions… we’re not in the best condition to play great rugby.”
There is a parallel to be drawn between what Stade Francais achieved last year and what the footballers of Leicester have accomplished this season. When the 2014-15 season started no one mentioned Stade as title contenders; they hadn’t finished in the top six the previous season and while they weren’t 5000-1 outsiders like Leicester, nor were they considered a threat to the likes of Clermont, Toulon and Racing.
Playing without pressure frees the mind and loosens the limbs, and as the victories mounted for Stade so the momentum increased. The players enjoyed playing within the broad framework of Quesada’s coaching, and just as importantly they enjoyed each other’s company – mates as well as team-mates. That esprit de corps has been slowly eroded this season as one defeat followed another; the nadir was the 33-18 loss at home to Grenoble in February. “When you lose 40 metres to a maul… I’ve rarely seen that,” complained Geoffrey Doumayrou, a threequarter, adding: “There’s not a will to win matches.”
Midi Olympique has talked of a “fissure” in the dressing room and the disinterest shown by several players against Leicester in last month’s Champions Cup quarter-final, a match the Tigers won 41-13, was shocking. It was too much even for the thoughtful and mild-mannered Quesada, who issued a rare public rebuke, admitting that “certain players had not been up to scratch”.
Not that the head coach has sidestepped responsibility for the club’s failings. “I don’t know if it’s my authority or my project which is posing problems,” he admitted. “The whole club has to put itself in question, starting with me and my staff.”
The pressure now is intense. Stade president Thomas Savare gave the customary vote of confidence to his head coach after the Leicester debacle, while also conceding the season has been a “real disappointment”.
The same can be said, of course, about Oyonnax, who since the season started have parted company with head coach Olivier Azam and star signing Piri Weepu. But last week they announced eight new signings for the coming season and then they beat La Rochelle at the weekend, grinding out a 17-16 victory that will do wonders for their morale. “We’re going to play against Stade without pressure,” promised Oyonnax coach Johann Authier.
Last season Stade, as underdogs, preyed on the pressure felt by others in the play-offs, beating Racing, Toulon and Clermont on consecutive weekends to win the title. Now the Parisians are the ones under pressure and the players more than ever are responsible for their own destinies.
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