9 Jun 2013

When the underdog wins: the final of the French rugby championship

Many of us tend to like it when the underdog in any form of contest wins whatever the struggle, fight, or competition may be. Call it the David vs Goliath complex, or the small is beautiful syndrome, or the (back to school here) beat the big bully story re-told.

There was one more example of this just over a week ago when, in the final of the French rugby union season (XV-a-side) Castres Olympique beat the Rugby Club of Toulon quite convincingly, despite the apparently close score of 19-14 (finals are usually close).

The Castres team celebrate their 19-14 victory over the Toulon all-stars

It should be said the Toulon had just, 2 weeks previously, won the European Cup (known as the Heineken Cup on account of its main sponsor), beating the favourites, another French team called Clermont. But Toulon were clear favourites for this French cahmapionship final, having defeated the title holders, Toulouse, in one semi-final, and despite the fact that Castres had beaten (to most people's surprise) Clermont in the other semi-final.

Rory Kockott, the South-African scrum half for Castres, who is hardly a world name but who is a key player in their game, scores the try that turned the match.  

Rugby Union is now a fully professional sport and, in France, all top teams recruit a growing proportion of their players (and even their trainers) from all over the rugby-playing world. This requires money, and the more you have, the more you are able to recruit star players from wherever, and this tend to draw more spectators into the stadoums where you play. Toulon is a prime example of this pattern, with stars, albeit somwhat ageing, like Jonny Wilkinson (England) Bakkies Botha (South Africa), Matt Giteau (Australia) or Chris Masoe and Carl Hayman (New Zealand). But Castres, although it has some players recruited from outside France, has no international stars in its line-up and been trained for a number of years by a little-known (but well respected in rugby circles) French tandem, Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers. One of the main reasons for this is the relative modesty of the town of Castres (in the Tarn departement of South-West France), and hence its budget. Even with a big pharmaceutical company (Pierre Fabre) as its main and historical sponsor, the Castres Olympique's annual budget comes in at under 16 million euros per annum, placing it in 9th place in the top budgets for French professional rugby clubs and looking tiny alongside that of Toulouse, which stands at 35 million.

So the underdog won. So what? Well, for a start, it showed that monay cannot buy everything, even in modern sport. It also rewarded several years of consistent hard work and good results from this club who has regularly finished in the top 4 or 6 teams of the 14-team championship recently. Yet they hadn't won this competition since 1993. What goes around comes around, and all I can now hope for is that the club I support, Stade Français Paris, whose performance over recent years has been, shall we say, disappointing (only 10th place in the French championship this year, but a finalist in the second European cup) will do much better next year with its budget that places it amongst the top 4 or 5 spenders.