9 Dec 2011

Stade Français is back!

The good news on the rugby front, at least as far as I am concerned, and whilst English national rugby continues to flounder in the quagmire of unresolved contradictions, is the return to form of the local team that I support here in Paris: Stade Français Paris.

Stade Français is one of France's oldest rugby clubs, but not the oldest. That title goes to Le Havre Athletic club, founded (by Englishmen) in 1872, at a time when the game was played with 20 players per team, and not 15 as it is today.

The Stade Français was founded in 1883 by students from the Lycée Buffon in Paris, just a year later than its local rival, Le Racing Club de France, and 16 years before the Stade Toulousain, for exemple.

Between 1892 and 1898, these two Paris teams dominated French rugby, alternatively winning all the championships until rugby began to migrate to the southwest of the country, providing more competition. Nevertheless, Stade Français won a total of 8 national titles up to 1908, and was the first French club to play against an English one.

Brian Liebenberg, a key player in recent years, chaired by Paris team members on his retirement

With the occasional return to the top level of club rugby (a final lost in 1927, then a couple of years in the 1960's) Stade Français only climbed back from a more modest level of play and classification in 1994, almost 100 years after its initial days of glory. It gained acces to the elite division in 1997 and became French champion once again in 1998. Since then it has won the French championship another 4 times (2000, 2003, 2004 and 2007), a recent record that beats that of another great club, Toulouse, which has been champion 3 times since the turn of this century.

The two Paris centres (Burruchaga and Williams) attack during the game against Racing

Since 2007 and the departure of several key players and the trainer of that year, Fabien Galthié, the Stade Français has lost the brillance and the consistency of its play, and has even failed to qualify for the top European cup for the last 2 seasons. This difficult period was accompanied by growing financial difficulites. Things came to a head last summer with a change of presidency and a restructuring of the club's organisation. It is perhaps too soon to speak of durable and positive results, but, after a very mixed start to the current season, Stade Français is currently playing with all the spark and determination of its best days of a few years ago. They almost beat Toulouse in the away game in October....(18-15), and, since then, have won every game played, including comprehensive victories at home over Clermont and Racing Metro (the 19th century rival club, more recently revived but yet to win a major title) and away over Perpignan. During the same period they have also won their two games in the secondary European Cup, the Amlin Challenge. They are currently in 6th position in the championship.

Jérome Filliol scores a classic scrum-half try againt Racing after slipping through the defense on the blind side

We shall of course have to wait and see if this winning streak continues, but what is so good for a supporter is to see the Stade Français play once again with such fire and determination, as well as with skill and intelligence, varying their game according to the opposition and circumstances. The arrival of the new President, and a couple of key plays like the excellent Argentinean, Felipe Contepomi (at fly-half) has surely helped. The quality of players like Julien Dupuy (scrum-half) Sergio Parisse (8), Dmitri Szarzevski (hooker), Pascal Papé (lock forward) and Pierre Rabadan (flanker) is part of the story as well, but it seems unfair to pick out individuals in a case like this, so much the team spririt appears to be doing its thing.

Sergio Parisse takes the ball in a line-out

Stade Français Paris are renowned not only for their play, but also for being a highly original team, with creative kit (not all of which is in very good taste, it has to be said) the famous (or infamous) calendar that involves near-naked players, mainly from the team but also from other rugby teams and sometimes other sports, and the great shows put on at major games that have attracted hitherto unknown crowds and a new public to rugby. All this was the work of a man of vision, Max Guazzini, the former club President who took it from nowhere to the top. He has now, and with great elegance, passed his hand to the new President Thomas Savare, and can be seen in the aisles at matches as an ordinary supporter. What is really touching is to see the playersj when they recongise him at the end of a game, bow and take off their metaphorical hats to the man. This club has soul!  

A forward and captain congratulates his scrum-half: Parisse and Filliol

I like this new team. I have never stopped being a supporter of Stade Français and have lived some great and also some sad moments with them. This weekend they play against Parma, in Italy, for a game in the European Challenge. I think I will eat some ham and drink some Prosecco to encourage them, although a trip to Italy would have been nice!

Allez le Stade!

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