The newly-promoted ProD2 club Vannes is proving a big hit with fans and businesses in Brittany
The suits at LNR must have purred on Friday night when they heard the result from Vannes. The ProD2 new boys had beaten Montauban 23-20 and victory had come in front of more than 7,000 spectators.
That’s more than turned up at Beziers, Biarritz or Dax, three southern clubs steeped in history but whose attendances are in decline after sustained periods of failure. What a difference in the north-west of France, an area more traditionally associated with football.
In France, Brittany is to football what the Basque country is to rugby. The region lives and breathes the sport, boasting four of the 20 clubs in the French first division – Rennes, Guingamp, Nantes and Lorient. But in recent years the LNR and FFR have woken up to the vast potential of an area peopled with hardy souls known for their independence and fierceness of character.
Nantes hosted three pool matches during the 2007 World Cup, the semi-finals of the 2012-13 Top 14 were also held in the city and Racing 92 occasionally relocate there in a bid to broaden their fan base.
But Brittany still lacked a professional club, a team into which this growing love for the game could be channelled. That was until Vannes beat Massy in last season’s Federale 1 play-off. Nearly 10,000 fans crammed into the Stade de la Rabine on that occasion – not a bad figure considering Vannes’ population is 53,000.
The squad this season is a mix of local lads – youngsters such as 23-year-old wing Gwenaël Duplenne, who scored 13 tries in 18 matches last season, and veterans like 35-year-old flanker Francois Bourdrel, who’s been with the club for ten years. Then there are the French players released from the Top 14 like Julien Côme, who played three matches for Racing 92, and lock Etienne Delangle, who never managed to make it with Clermont.
Finally there are the foreign contingent. Playing fly-half in the win over Montauban was New Zealander Ash Moeke, who spent last season playing for Southland in the ITM Cup, while the pack contained a Spanish prop, two South Africans and Manoa Vosawai, the Fiji-born flanker who won 17 caps for Italy and spent the last two seasons at Cardiff Blues.
The emphasis, however, is developing local talent. In an interview with a local paper in 2014, club president François Cardron proudly explained that Vannes’ minis section had more than 300 members and that their youth sides had swept the board in the Brittany championships in 2012-13.
Cardon said at the time that he believed Vannes could survive as Brittany’s professional club and in the process become the only club in the northern half of France outside the Paris area to play in one of the top two divisions of French rugby.
Cardron has been instrumental in making Vannes financially stable, not an attribute one can say about all the clubs in the ProD2. On Friday evening he hosted 240 corporate guests for the match against Montauban, of which 70 were new partners, and the estimated budget for Vannes this season is €4.55m. That’s some way down on the likes of Oyonnax (€11.2) and Perpignan (€9.45m), but it’s still a respectable figure, thanks to their €1.85m slice of the broadcasting rights and the deals cut by Cardron during the summer with Brittany businesses.
“The success of Vannes isn’t just that of a town,” said Cardron recently. “But of the whole region.”
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