Friday evening, La Rochelle will play the third semi-final in its history in Top 14 against Racing 92.
Stade Rochelais, second in the regular season of the Top 14, challenges Racing 92 (3rd), Friday June 18 (8:45 p.m.), on the occasion of the semi-finals of the French rugby championship. Two clubs, and two very different ways of experiencing rugby. On the one hand, the Maritimes grew little by little, relying on unwavering popular support. On the other hand, Ile-de-France residents can count on the financial strength of their president and the regular recruitment of international stars.
In these lands scented by the sea air of the Atlantic Ocean, the oval is well anchored in the depths of the city. From the famous towers of the Old Port to the Porte de la Grosse Horloge, all the emblematic places of the Charente-Maritime prefecture are good for discussing the Stade Rochelais. Flagship club of the city, the La Rochelle formation presents itself on Friday with a very strong local identity and values that rugby is trying to continue to perpetuate in the face of an increase in investments for several years.
Because La Rochelle, in the Top 14, is a very special institution. Under the leadership of President Vincent Merling, in place since 1991, Stade Rochelais has gradually built the most beautiful pages of its history, after having experienced elite games, without much success, since the 1950s. finalist of the French championship in 2017 and 2019, finalist of the Champions Cup in May, the Rochelais club advances with the label of the favorite for the benefit of a beautiful second place at the end of the regular season. Vice-champion of Europe after its defeat against Stade Toulousain, La Rochelle hopes to forget this painful memory by going to seek the first title in its history in the Top 14.
To achieve this, the Maritimes will be able to count on two characteristics that are the strength of the club at the Caravelle: the “local” players and its popularity. Zeno Kieft (at the club since 2010), Romain Sazy (2010), Uini Atonio (2011) or even Kevin Gourdon (2012), to name a few, have been wearing the colors yellow and black for a long time, notably rewarding the consistency of the La Rochelle formation. A team that can rely on unconventional popular support, and almost unique in France. The legendary Marcel-Deflandre stadium has sold out (16,000 spectators on average) over the last four seasons. In total, 55 consecutive games were played at home sold out until the reception of the RCT on February 22, 2020, just before the Top 14 stopped due to the health crisis. Since then, the den of the Maritimes has sounded sadly hollow. But some supporters will be present Friday among the 5,000 spectators authorized and expected in the spans of the Pierre-Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve d’Ascq.
Between the heat of a city which vibrates to inflate it on a daily basis, and the relative anonymity of a Racing torn between its training center at Plessis-Robinson and its stadium in Paris La Défense Arena, the gap is as great as the height of the cold towers which rise above the Parisian business district. But the Ciel et Blancs, led by their military president Jacky Lorenzetti (at the head of the club since 2006), have built another project, at high speed, and today appear to be mastodons facing La Rochelle, this “small poucet “of province.
The French businessman took a turn radically opposed to that of La Rochelle: to rely on a few “loyal” players (Eddy Ben Arous, Juan Imhoff, Teddy Thomas, Camille Chat, Henry Chavancy in particular), and bet on international stars. Dan Carter (2015-2018), Joe Rokocoko (2015-2019), Jonathan Sexton (2013-2015) or Sebastien Chabal (2009-2012), among others, were the headliners of this strategy which has sometimes chatter, but that also worked. Since then, the desire to recruit French has emerged. The arrival of Gaël Fickou, French rugby star and friend of Teddy Thomas, also symbolizes this development which could allow the Racingmen to take a new course.
French champion in 2016, the only club to have played all the finals of the Top 14 since the 2009-2010 season and three times European vice-champion (2016, 2018 and 2020), Racing 92, third of the season regular, today has a shovelful of major internationals (Kurtley Beale, Simon Zebo, Finn Russell, Virimi Vakatawa, or even Bernard Le Roux). But unlike La Rochelle, Ile-de-France residents still do not manage to gather and retain an audience. Despite the construction of the famous Paris La Défense Arena (capacity of 32,000 spectators), popular support is far from taking stock (occupancy rate of less than 50% during the 2019-2020 season). What if this long-awaited fervor could be triggered with a seventh national title, the second of the Lorenzetti era, 31 years after the victory of the Racingmen of another era? Those who wore the pink bow tie and who had drunk the champagne at half-time in the final.
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