October 24 2005
We are playing Stade Francais in the Heineken Cup yet again. We have now played them five times. They have won three matches to two. We did however win the big one the 2001 European Cup final at the Parc des Princes 34-30.
This is a short history of the Paris club.
Stade Francais was founded by a group of students who met in Le Procope restaurant in St Germain in 1883. In 1892 they took part in the first ever French championship match where they were beaten by Metro Racing, also of Paris. The trophy for the winner of this match was the Bouclier de Brennus, which is still presented to the winners of the French championship. This “large lump of wood” has an almost mythical status is French rugby. It was commissioned by the referee of that first match - none other than Pierre de Courbetin the founder of the modern Olympic movement.
Although named the French championship, entry was confined to clubs from the Paris Area until 1899 and during this period Stade Francais won Le Bouclier de Brennus five further times. After the competition was enlarged to take in the whole of France they won again in 1901, 1903 and 1908.
They were the first French club to adopt English rules and the first to play against English opposition.
Although they reached the final of the Brennus again in 1927 Stade Francais spent over fifty years languishing in the lower divisions.
Flamboyant entrepreneur Max Guazzini had a dream of bringing top class rugby back to Paris. In 1992 he took over Stade Francais which was then in the French 3rd division. With his money to fund recruitment and the merger with another Parisian club – Comitie Athletic St Germain - in 1995 they rose rapidly into the 1st division once more. With the acquisition of CASG they had the use of a stadium suitable for premiership rugby for the first time – Jean Bouin their present home.
In 1995 Bernard Laporte – now trainer of France became their trainer.
The seasons 1966-97 and 1997 98 saw some vigorous recruitment with amongst other – De Villiers, Chaffradon, Auradou, Dominici, Comba, Dominguez, Juillet, Leivrement, Poole-Jones and Marconnet.
These players were called over-mediarised mercenaries and worse by the hard core rugby supporters in the traditional heartlands of the southwest. The razzmatazz surrounding them in an attempt to attract fans did not go down well with other rugby fans.
However they won the championship for the first time in the modern era 1998. In five seasons they had risen from 3rd division to champions once more.
Max Guazinni had realised his dream of bringing top class rugby to Paris. However it was to take much longer to bring Paris to Rugby. The crowds remained small except of one off special matches. The players used to say in the early days that it made little difference whether they played at home or away. Wherever they were they were playing they had very little support.
The lack of support from the Paris public and constant slagging from the southern fans did bring one important advantage. Their much-maligned players became a very close knit, supportive group, which is one of their strengths. Despite having players from seven different countries they are all there for each other to a very marked degree.
In 1999 they won the now defunct Coupe de France
Bernard Laporte left to coach France in November 1999. George Coste replaced him until the end of 2000. He was in turn replaced by John Connolly who took them to the 2001 European Cup final. Stade lost the European Cup final to Tigers in an epic battle at the Parc des Princes yards, from their ground at Jean Bouin.
John Connolly left in 2002 amid player unrest which was not helped by his refusal to learn french. He was replaced by South African Nick Mallett.
They won the French Championship again in 2003 and 2004 The crowds were growing but still not massive. Support at away games was sparse.
This is perhaps understandable, as the nearest away match is Clermont Ferrand 265 miles away. (Newcastle is 185 for us) Although there is the slight problem of the English Channel in the way Tigers is 380 miles from Paris. The vast majority of their away matches are further away than this, with Perpignan a massive 535 miles. The players fly to all but two of their away matches. It is hardly surprising that few fans have the time or the money to follow them regularly away.
Stade Francais have started their own academy despite the difficulties of being based in Paris with no ground or training facilities of their own. Jean Bouin belongs to the Mairie of Paris and they use Renaults sports ground at Meudon to train.
2004-2005 was a very mixed season for Stade Francais. Nick Mallet who had brought them success and was much loved by the players and fans left to return home to South Africa for family reasons. Ex French Captain and Stade player Fabien Galthie, who had no training experience, was appointed coach. He had the help of the experienced Fabrice Landrau the former Stade hooker. In his first season he took them to the top of the league. before the playoffs, with 100 points. They beat Biarritz to qualify for the European final and Toulouse to reach the domestic final. Things were looking very good for them.
Then, heartbreakingly for them, they lost both finals in extra time. The European match to Toulouse and the Brennus to Biarritz. It was a very hard pill to swallow both for the players and the fans. However the players did manage to drag themselves back out to thank the fans for their support after both matches although they were very tired and very devastated. They had played 41 league and European matches during the season, two of which went to extra time. They were so near and yet so far from having a very special season.
On the plus side they had an entirely homegrown youngster breaking through from the academy for the first time. The hooker Benjamin Kayser showed great promise in the first team. Yohan Montes also came from the academy. They had had academy players such as Arnaud Marchois breaking though before but they had started off in other academies. Their own academy has only just started to bear fruit.
The other plus was that they had for the first time managed to really pull in the Parisian fans. A new young peoples' supporters group was formed called Le Virage des Dieux. They were offered 25 Euro season tickets for under 25’s in a very unsheltered block behind the posts. These youngsters bought drums and songs and livened up the very loyal but rather quiet Paris fans. The youngsters also did their best to travel to away matches. Although they are noisy and enthusiastic they are also very well mannered and have a charter with rules such as respecting the ref and not whistling the kicker.
Max Guazzini’s decision to play the European semi final against Newcastle at the Parc des Princes was greeted by gnashing of teeth by the fans and superstitious mistrust by some of the players. The 2001 final against Tigers still hurt. By offering some very cheap 5 Euro tickets and targeting schools and junior clubs they filled the 48,000 seater Parc despite much scepticism. They also rolled out Jonny Wilkinson for a press conference at the Town Hall although he ended up not playing.
The European semi against Biarritz was a sell out as was the league match against Toulouse. This was despite none of the above teams taking huge numbers of their own fans. Newcastle had 1500 I believe.
Stade won all their three matches at the Parc des Princes and managed to lay the ghost of the 2001 defeat there.
With the success of last seasons matches at the Parc Max Guazzini asked to use it for two big matches this season – Toulouse and Leicester. The President of Paris St Germain refused citing possible damage to the pitch, although many believe that the real reason is that Paris St Germain cannot half fill the Parc and are losing fans in bucketfulls whilst Stade are gaining them.
For the Toulouse match the Stade de France was available and the Paris team took the gamble of booking it. It paid off they have sold out 80,000 seats a record for a league match in any sport. However for the Leicester match it was not so simple as the Stade de France was not available. Other top class football teams offered their stadia and Brussels offered the national stadium. The big problem was that none were near Paris. After much uncertainty, especially for the travelling fans, the game remained in Paris at Stade de Charlety, which holds 20,000.
Stade also, for the first time, managed to take substantial numbers abroad for the Edinburgh final. Although the numbers don’t seem huge to Tigers supporters, who always seem to go mob handed, it was a very real breakthrough for them. The dynamic Max Guazzini managed to get sponsors to subsidise travel to Edinburgh so that it cost only 40 Euro for a ticket and travel to Edinburgh. There was no overnight stop so the fans put up with two 16 hour, long gruelling journeys. They filled 22 buses. When the Toulouse fans living in Paris moaned that they were not looked after like that he put on an extra bus for them at the same price. Together with those taking the more expensive flight option and those making their own way 3000 fans turned up. It was a huge growth from the Gwent Dragons away fixture the previous year when they had only one supporter to cheer them on.
Stade are often accused of buying success and in the early days that was probably true. However their budget is much less than Toulouse even though they have the extra expense of operating in Paris. Travel to away games is not cheap either.
This years four top French budgets are:- STADE TOULOUSAIN £10.22 CLERMONT £6.81 STADE FRANCAIS £6.27 BIARRITZ £6.06
Of this budget they are allowed to spend a maximum of half on playing and coaching so they have £3,135,000 available to spend on players and coaches. Very few of their international players were big stars when they were recruited and most of the French ones got their first international honours whilst playing for Stade. De Villiers, Marconnet, Martin, Auradou, Dominici, Liebenberg all got their first caps after joining Stade.
We have got Stade again in the European Cup. Who will win? I don’t know. What I do know is that they are always very motivated against Tigers. The 2001 loss still really hurts. Toulouse has won the cup three times and they haven’t. They are probably the team that is hungriest for European victory. They have really class players but many are feeling the effects of the long French season.
The front five who at their best are awesome are looking very tired. With the props de Villiers and Lemoine both injured they are not able to give Marconnet and Roncero the rest they need. Marconnet is having to play at tight head but is far more comforable at loosehead. They do however have the revalation of last season Dimitri Szarzewski hooking. He together with another Stade player Remy Martin were the stand out french players on the summer tour to South Africa and Australia.
Remy Martin is one of a Stade backrow which like Tigers has considerable depth. Martin, Sowerby, Mauro Bergamasco, Rabadan, Parisse are all class players. Remy Martin’s workrate is phenomenal and he never stops tackling. The Stade lineout is usually sound. They won 11 of the opposition’s throw-ins against Castres but had a very bad day at the office against Clermont away.
Corleto and Skrela are big loses in their backs. Pichot is a world class scrum half. They have just recruited veteran ex Stade play Alain Penaud to cover for Skrela as both Hernandez and Fillol their other back ups are fairly inexperienced at this post. Penaud is 36 though and not as quick as he once was. Also with Liebenberg and Corleto both injured Hendandez could be needed to cover at centre or full back as he is accomplished at both positions. Stephan Glas is a bit of an unsung hero in the centre. He does much that goes unnoticed but makes things happen for those around him. Other centres are newly recruited Geffroy Messina and young Thierry Lacroix who came from Biarritz. It was Lacroix who was so effective in stopping Andy Goode playing in both Biarritz matches but he has hardly played for Stade so I doubt he will start.
On the wing Christophe Dominici is class despite his age he can still make unexpected things happen. He is also strong defensively. He could play full back but I would expect it to be Hendandez there. On the other wing Julian Arias another young player is looking strong and knocking on the door of french selection.
If Stade come out motivated and able to shake off their fatigue think we will have our hands full, even though they are missing key players. However, if we do our homework properly and don’t get too complacent we do have a chance of beating them but we’ll have to be on top of our game.