Steady and patient progress of Atlantic coast club mirrors region’s turbulent history
The local convicts will be locked up in La Rochelle this Sunday.
As the city’s rugby club continues a charge that enthrals all who love this sport, their supporters, nicknamed ‘Les Bagnards’, or convicts, due to their hooped black and yellow garb – have become used to self-imposed imprisonment by now. Like the rest of us.
And so this weekend, they will miss another chance to commence their brazenly cacophonous 20-minute march from the medieval old port town to their 16,000-capacity home fuelled by an intoxicating spirit that is not only served by the glass.
“In the city, it’s difficult to assess because everything’s locked down,” says head coach Jono Gibbes of their invisible allies.
“There’s not really the classic cliché of, ‘There’s a real buzz in the city’. We just don’t know.
“Certainly, we feel the support on social media in the campaigns the club are running, the supporters sharing their excitement and how much they are looking forward to this game.
“But you certainly miss that real connection in the city and build-up to a big game. We’ve missed that a little bit.”
And so home will instead house the swelling hearts of the pulsating natives. In a city smaller than Galway, whose 16,000-capacity stadium has sold out for the last four years, few are untouched by the impact of an oval ball.
Generations of those who are of the earth here in this glorious slice of South-West France, nestled in the Bay of Biscay, have become used to responding to adversity with defiance and, at times, utter insubordination.
Their team also expresses themselves in this way, at once accepting the structure of a game that can often be suffocated by it but at the same time seeking to escape its strictures.
As former Ireland and Leinster player Bernard Jackman avers, “To understand where they come from, it is necessary to go deeper.”
The 10th century city, which can trace origins to Roman times, has been purged by both their own kin and overseas raiders down the turbulent days; they have repelled the English and been almost submerged by the Nazis.
Their home ground owes its name to an historical Second World War hero and the then club president, Marcel Deflandre, also a port worker, whose furtive sedition helped thwart the Gestapo as he espied German subs and ships.
Deflandre was arrested in October, 1943 and executed three months later.
Rugby league had already been crushed by Vichy France but La Rochelle survived and regathered from the dust of war and the ashes of death.
Less than 10 years later, Arnaud Elissalde helped to devise the Stade Rochelais Rugby School to spread the gospel of an ‘oval religion’.
A son and grandson would form the flocks that followed; scrum-half Jean-Baptiste would become a modern legend, a little jewel hewn from the ‘little rock’ upon which this Atlantic coastal hideaway was constructed so long ago.
But they were never a formidable force; Vincent Merling, once a back-rower, and a self-made businessman, would begin the steps to make them so when he assumed the presidency in 1991.
As they stuttered into the professional era, they did not make the top flight until 2012 – relegated for one season, they returned and have remained ever since.
“It’s rare for a promoted club to escape that relegation zone and realistically challenge for the top six where the elites of Toulouse and Toulon usually reside,” notes Jackman.
They were an ordinary club but they wanted to become an extraordinary one.
“He has been in the club all his life,” Ronan O’Gara explains of owner Merling, “and has missed three games in the last 42 years.
“He absolutely loves it, but knows the game inside out. It’s good when you are dealing with people that get the game and understand your opportunities and frustrations.”
In 2015, Merling, now abandoning his core business to devote his energies to his true passion, congregated a slew of local businessmen within the plan, “Growing Together”, where they provided the funds to bring them to that next level.
Eight hundred people helped to combine with sponsors to contribute around €9m, forming half a now-annual budget of €16m; still short of elite standards but ahead of the chasing posse.
Now, they have the third best facility in France and, having removed the volcanic coach Patricio Colazzo, who had brought them so far, recruited first Gibbes, and then O’Gara, to construct a team around players such as former All Black Victor Vito, one of several astute, if not spectacular signings.
Merling is not a stereotypical French president but a ruthless streak belies his calm exterior; Leinster’s equally astute Mick Dawson would be cut from a similar cloth.
In 2018, Merling was sufficiently emboldened to send a private jet to lure the then unsettled Gibbes from Ulster as the Kiwi abandoned plans to move home for good.
When Gibbes leaves this summer, O’Gara will become only their first permanent head coach in 30 years, illustrating their commitment to calm, but assured growth.
“We have succeeded in maintaining our club culture and identity,” says the publicity-shy Merling, for whom his team are his expression, and wonderfully so.
“Everyone likes an underdog, in France especially,” says Irish international Robin Copeland, who plays down the road for a team in the second tier, Soyaux Angoulême.
“And I think everyone is appreciative of what they can do. I think a lot of clubs look at it and say, ‘Why not us’. We could absolutely do that, it’s not a huge city.
“It’s a pretty special thing that they are doing. The mood towards them is pretty positive.”
Last year, Merling concocted a new plan. “Rewriting history.” Except they are already doing that.
This weekend could mark a decisive step on a remarkable 113-year journey.