Local club La Rochelle now pressing claims at Europe’s top table
Model old club deeply rooted in local community now boast team among Europe's best
La Rochelle’s Irish coach Ronan O’Gara and the club’s director of rugby Jono Gibbes. Photograph: Xavier Leoty/AFP/Getty
A May Bank Holiday weekend in the charming old port city of La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, the restaurants looking out at the Île de Ré, a 2.9-kilometre bridge away.
It could have been beautiful. Blue skies at the start of a French summer and temperatures in the 20s. Take a trek inland on match day to a 16,000 capacity crowd and the Stade Marcel-Deflandre in all its glory. On such days has the Heineken Champions Cup been made.
For the 4,000 or so Leinster supporters amongst the swarm of black and yellow, it truly would have been quite a privilege to be present for La Rochelle’s first ever semi-final two weeks’ hence.
For if ever a club and a ground was not disposed to playing its matches in an empty stadium it is Stade Rochelais. Prior to the pandemic, it was the only ground in the Top 14 to record 100 per cent capacity attendances for all its home games in each of the 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons.
In all, Stade Marcel-Deflandre had been sold out, usually days in advance, for 43 consecutive home games dating back to the 37-18 win over Stade Francais in February 2017.
The club are the sporting heartbeat of the city and match days are about more than the matches. The gates open four or five hours before kick-off. Match days are an event and the financial artery of the club.
“They’ve got a restaurant and a play area for children. It’s very family-orientated,” says Arnaud David, rugby correspondent with Sud Ouest and based in Bordeaux, less than 200k down the Atlantic coast.
“It’s very much like Clermont or Munster. It’s family rooted and working-class because the club is not in a rich part of La Rochelle and at the beginning the players were dockers, hard guys working on the harbour. It’s not a bourgeois club.”
“They are very strong, a close unit. It’s unique because it is not owned by one person. It is still the old amateur structure, in many ways like Barcelona or Real Madrid. You haven’t got one man with a lot of money who owns the club.
“It is an old-fashioned club but with very strong roots because in that ‘département’ the Charente-Maritime, they are the only elite club so it drains all the economy of the ‘département’ and it is very well managed. The club has grown slowly but surely.”
The stadium is named after Marcel Deflandre, a president of the club during the second World War, when La Rochelle was occupied by the German army in June 1940 and the Vichy government banned Rugby League and forced all of its assets to be handed to the French Rugby Union.
This forced the rugby league club La Rochelle-Etudiants XIII to merge with the rugby union club and form Stade Rochelais. The merger was overseen by Deflandre when he became president of the club in January 1941.
A director of the oil storage company Raffinerie du Midi, he joined the Resistance in 1942, commanding the “Supply and Fuel” section of the “Honour and Fatherland” group. Arrested in October 1943, he was executed on January 11th, 1944.
Nicknamed les maritimes, La Rochelle was formed originally as long ago as 1898 and had a relatively low-key existence for much of its history.
They won three regional Atlantic championships in the early part of the 20th century, thus reaching two quarter-finals and one semi-final in the French Championship.
Ironically, it was the drain of players to rugby league in the 1930s which had forced the two rugby union clubs, Stade Rochelais and Union Sportive Rochelaise, to merge in 1935, before the aforementioned merger with the rugby league club during WW2.
In the 1950s the club created its own rugby school and the then player-coach Arnaud Elissalde (whose son and grandson, Jean-Baptiste, both also played scrumhalf for La Rochelle) formed a team of teachers. La Rochelle reached three quarter-finals of the French Championship in the 1960s and in the 1970s their underage system began to flourish, before they were relegated in 1985, returning to the top flight a dozen years later.
Their only trophies are back-to-back Challenge Yves du Manoir triumphs in 2002 and 203, and from 1997 to 2002 they spent five years in what was then the Top 16 before being relegated (finishing a point behind Pau). They briefly returned to the Top 14 for the 2010-11 season before being relegated again after one season.
It was then that Vincent Merling, a former backrow with La Rochelle in the 1970s, formed a five-year plan called “Growing Together”.
“He became president of the club in 1990 and is the longest-serving president at any club,” says Arnaud.
Founder of Cafés Merling, which has a chain of cafes, he has passed on the business to his family in order to concentrate his efforts on the club.
“He is not a billionaire, he’s not a Bruce Craig or a Jacky Lorenzetti. He’s more modest, down to earth, and his club is his obsession. He’s put things in place to ensure the club go well even if he is not there.”
“In all these years they grew and grew as a club. The structures and the foundations are very strong because they have invested in their stadium, all their resources have been brought together,” said Arnaud pointing to that continuous run of sell-outs.
“They make a lot of money from the restaurant and things like this.”
Needless to say, given their passionate home support, La Rochelle have an impressive home record. Since the start of the 2016-17 season they have played 63 home games in the Top 14 and the Champions Cup, winning 55, drawing three and losing just seven (two of which have been in the Champions Cup). In the Top 14, they have lost only five of their last 58 home games.
Even since games have been played behind closed doors, La Rochelle won ten out of ten home games this season until Toulouse beat them 14-11 four weeks ago.
One of Merling’s shrewdest moves was to pluck the former Bordeaux/Begles, Toulouse and Gloucester prop Patrice Collazo (he won a Premiership title with the latter in 2002) from his role as coach of the Toulouse espoirs in 2011.
Finishing fifth, fourth and third under Collazo, they won promotion from the ProD2 via the play-offs in 2014, then established themselves in the Top 14 with two ninth-place finishes before they topped the regular season table in 2016-17, losing 18-15 to Toulon in the semi-final in Marseilles.
Maintaining a daring, high tempo, offloading brand of rugby, by the end of January 2018 they were top of the table again and had reached the quarter-finals in their debut Champions Cup campaign. Whereupon the wheels fell off, as they lost nine of their last dozen Top 14 games, as well as their quarter-final away to the Scarlets, and missed out on the top six play-offs by two points.
“It was very difficult for Merling to get rid of Collazo because he was like a second son to him,” says David. “But true to his club, he decided to replace his second son.”
Collazo has since taken over at Toulon.
Jono Gibbes, Leinster’s forwards coach for six seasons from 2008 to 2014 under Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt when they won three Heineken Cups, had spent two seasons with Clermont and one with Ulster. He had agreed to return to his home province Waikato when Merling sent a private jet to Belfast, flew him to La Rochelle and persuaded him to become their Director of Rugby.
Under Gibbes, they finished fifth in 2018-19, beating Racing away in the quarter-finals before losing to Toulouse in the semi-finals. He then made two key appointments. Johnny Claxton, the Kiwi strength and conditioning coach he worked with for two years at Leinster, from Grenoble, became their Chef de la Performance (sounds so much better in French!) and, of course, Ronan O’Gara was appointed as head coach, after his transformative stint at the Crusaders.
The Gibbes effect?
“Much more structure and more clever,” says David. “The team know when and where to raise the tempo, and the quality of their defence has improved with O’Gara. They have stronger foundations.”
James Coughlan, the former Munster number ‘8’ who spent three years as a player and two as the academy coach at Pau, is the defence coach in Jeremy Davidson’s coaching ticket at Brive and is also assistant forwards coach, working on the lineouts and scrums. Brive have been punching above their financial weight, winning ten and losing ten, to stand two points outside the top eight and 12 clear of the relegation zone.
La Rochelle are not going to be afraid of playing Leinster
They lost 36-22 away to La Rochelle last November and face them again in a fortnight.
He reels off the names of Grégory Alldritt, Pierre Bourgarit, Will Skelton and Victor Vito in immediately citing their strengths up front.
“Their lineout defensive system is a bit different from everyone else. They have [Uini] Atonio and Will Skelton at the front, who will just rip the hell out of a maul, while their jumpers are at the back. This allows their back-rowers to shoot up because most teams will take free ball at the front.
“So they apply huge pressure defensively with Bourgarit flying out of the line, and this protects Ihia West or Jules Plisson at ‘10’ quite well.”
Moving beyond outhalf, Coughlan cites the extraordinary power of Fijian centre Levani Botia, the finishing of Ghanaian-born Springbok winger Raymond Rhule, Coughlan says: “They have quality everywhere. They have a team full of internationals from one to ‘15’. They’re dangerous everywhere.”
As for Gibbes’ influence, Coughlan says: “If you watch their kick-chase lines and their escorts, and small things like that, it would remind you of Clermont when he was there. They’re really well-drilled in small things that makes a difference at the highest levels.
“Their escorts are always really good to protect their back three from the opposition kicking game. Their own kick-chase is good, their exit strategy is always very well organised and then you put really good players in an organised structure and that’s why they’re doing as well as they’re doing.”
The O’Gara effect?
“I think ‘Rog’ is a players’ coach,” says Coughlan. “Players will listen to him because of what he’s achieved. I think, he’d say it himself, his time with the Crusaders changed his outlook on how he does things and he’s tried to adapt.”
The two men spoke after their club’s November meeting.
“He said: ‘We spend so much time concentrating on ourselves so that we control what we control.’ And maybe that’s where their point of difference is. They’re not too worried about what other teams are doing. When you that approach and the quality of players they have then that’s a good environment.”
“Everybody was so impressed by the efficiency of Leinster in how they neutralised Exeter’s strong points. La Rochelle will not be favourites but they will have a go.”
Coughlan genuinely finds it hard to call.
“La Rochelle are not going to be afraid of playing Leinster,” he says. “Skelton has won against them and so have the French boys this season.”
Indeed, Brice Dulin, Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio and Pierre Bourgarit all contributed to France’s significant win over Ireland in Dublin, while Will Skelton was part of the Saracens team that beat Leinster in the 2019 final. Add Gibbes and O’Gara to the mix, and Coughlan has a point.
“It’s a massive ask for Leinster, but likewise La Rochelle. It could be very open or a slog, but it will just be a very good game.”
La Rochelle key players:
Uini Atonio (31, Prop)
The New Zealander of Samoan extraction (he sports a tattoo of the Samoan flag and played for their Under-20s), the 24-stone Atonio was recruited by Collazo in 2011 at just 21 in their ProD2 days.
“The man mountain/piano,” as former French hooker Benjamin Kayser puts it. “Obviously the heart and soul of this club.” Indeed, Atonio became club captain at 22. He has remained with La Rochelle ever since, playing 223 games for them and 47 times for France.
Pierre Bourgarit (23, hooker)
Along with Alldritt, Bourgarit was brought from Auch where La Rochelle’s forwards coach Grégory Patat spent 18 years a player and coach. Made his French debut against the All Blacks at just 20, and broke back into Les Bleus this season.
“Just an old school hooker, hard as nails, carries, tackles and offloads really well,” says Coughlan. “You see how many times he breaks off the back of a maul and does the right thing. Since they’ve got [Tawera] Kerr-Barlow telling him where to go he trusts what he’s doing.”
Grégory Alldritt (24, back-row)
Although not the biggest loose forward in the world, he has a phenomenal work-rate and is smart with it, already establishing himself as France’s first-choice number ‘8’. He has put in a mountain of work this season.
“Alldritt is the key for them,” according to Coughlan. “The spine of their team is Bourgarit, Skelton, Kerr-Barlow, West and Botia.”
Levani Botia (32, flanker/centre/wing)
A prison warden in his native Fiji, he too was signed by Collazo in their ProD2 days and has played 132 games for them. With his almost ridiculous mix of all-round skills and power, he’s their go-to man.
Coughlan recalls of a game for Pau: “He put myself and Paddy Butler on our rears at the same time. He absolutely melted Paddy, turned and put me back down on my arse because I tried to jump on him. An abrasive, aggressive and powerful man.”
Brice Dulin (31, fullback)
Reuniting him with O’Gara from the latter’s days coaching him at Racing has proved shrewd business, rejuvenating Dulin to such a point that he has regained the number 15 jersey with Les Bleus, with whom he was voted their Player of the Six Nations. He’s also given La Rochelle a left-footed kicking option.