French rugby fans have been stunned by the announcement that Racing 92 and Stade Français – Paris’ two professional rugby clubs – are to merge for the start of next season.
Imagine Liverpool and Everton combining to create one Scouse soccer club, or the Mets and Yankees joining forces to become New York baseball. Such notions, particularly for respective fans, is bordering on the sacrilegious. All the decades of polarising traditions, battles on the field and feuding fans put to one side for the sake of sport in their city. To some, it is incomprehensible, but it is a sudden reality to rugby fans in the French capital.
Both clubs, who play in the Top 14 league and are based in Paris, need their amalgamation to be ratified by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), while the extra place freed up in next season’s division will be filled by either a play-off or offering another promotion spot from the second-tier Pro D2.
The clubs put out a joint statement, detailing the move has been planned so as to ‘better cope with the challenges of performance and education’.
It’s important to highlight that these are not two tiny, struggling clubs. Racing are the reigning French champions, while Stade won the title the previous year, however both have struggled for form this season. Racing 92 were founded in 1890 (in terms of rugby, the club was formed eight years earlier but originally just for athletics), while Stade formed in 1883.
Players react to news
If Stade prop Rabah Slimani’s recent tweet is anything to go by, the players are devastated by the news, viewing the merger as the end of their club, not the continuation. He wasn’t the only one, with scrum-half Jerome Fillol, asking: ‘How do I explain to my son that the club I’ve fought so hard for no longer exists?’
Emma James, a journalist based in Paris and Stade Français fan, told Culture Trip, “The news is totally insane. Not least because of the disregard for the players. To see so many internationals players looking totally bewildered and upset was surreal. It appears (Jacky) Lorenzetti (Racing’s president) made this move to prevent a Qatari-owned rival from stealing his glory. (Thomas) Savare (Stade’s president) has denied talking to Qatar about a possible sale, but Lorenzetti’s comments this morning suggest otherwise.”
Crowds and players gathered at the Jean Bouin stadium (Stade’s home) in protest, including Stade captain Pascal Papé and Sylvain Nicolas.
— Emma James (@jmojames) March 13, 2017
Richard Pool-Jones, head coach at Stade, told the BBC, ‘There is a desire to build a side that can maybe be better than any other club in Europe. Of course there is the financial aspect to it, which is very important but there is a positive side of combining forces so we can win titles.’
There is a caveat to all of this, however. While the two clubs have an obvious rivalry, there is certainly a ‘Paris versus the provinces’ rhetoric that has followed Stade – particularly while Racing have been in the division below – meaning that clubs such as Toulouse, Bordeaux and Biarritz have built up grudges against the capital. Throw in the likes of Toulon and Clermont Auvergne, two other league heavyweights from further south, and the rationality behind the merger begins to make more sense.
In addition, French clubs who have historically been contenders for the Champions Cup (European rugby’s premier club tournament), have faltered over the last 18 months, as English, Irish and Scottish clubs have improved greatly. The merger of Parisian rugby has competing on the international stage in mind. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, along with which players earn contracts as at least half the playing staff is found to be surplus to requirements, but they will all carry on as professionals whether they agree with the merger or not – for most players, clubs are employers first and foremost. The real test will be for the fans. Will they combine and get behind Paris as a whole, or carry previous resentments along with them?
For James, the visible animosity makes a harmonious fan group difficult to imagine at the moment. She explains, “Stade fans are definitely far more upset about this, as it is undoubtedly less a merger and more a takeover. Racing fans are worried too, but they appear to feel more secure about the future. I did see one Racing fan on Twitter vowing not to welcome the “vulgar” Stade fans. Some see Stade as having lowered the tone of French rugby with kitsch kits, flamboyant pre-match shows their Dieux du Stade calendar.”
It is perhaps the speed in which this has all unraveled that makes has heightened tension. Some prior warning to fans would surely have eased worries, while the fact players are as surprised as supporters is frankly astounding. It’ll be fascinating to see it all unravel.