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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Racing 92 and Stade Français merger called off - A recap

After a farcical week of French politics and rugby combining, it's official: the controversial proposed merger between Racing 92 and Stade Français is off. We recap what took place, and look at where things stand now.

Until last Friday, the deal - which Stade players criticised as a takeover by Racing more than anything else - looked a dead cert. But a player-led strike, and an intervention from the governing body the LNR postponing both teams' Top 14 fixtures, put paid to the fusion.

The presidents of the two most recent Top 14 champions Racing 92 and Stade Français, stunned the rugby community on Monday morning by announcing they would merge into one next season.

Jacky Lorenzetti (Racing) and Thomas Savare (Stade) held a joint press conference in Paris to break the news, citing the financial insecurity of Stade and the risk of a possible Qatari takeover as justification.

Stade players strike

The ramifications of such an announcement were difficult to ignore, not least the impact it would have had on the Stade players, who received no prior warning of the fusion between the two sides.

This prompted club captain Pascal Papé to lead a players protest at the newly renovated Stade Jean-Bouin in opposition. In front of fans and reporters, Papé said: “it is like a death, this morning’s announcement. The family [Stade Français squad] weren’t consulted. I think it’s a very bad decision.”

Papé added: “I have enormous respect for Thomas Savare but today, he disappointed me with his behaviour which was far from humane.”

Papé’s team-mates took the news just as badly with fellow second-row, Paul Gabrillagues saying “I will not be part of this masquerade. It’s not a fusion, it’s a takeover of Stade Français by Racing, therefore the death of our club.”

99.8% of Stade players voted for strike action ahead of this weekend’s scheduled game against Castres. With the power of people and the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR)’s willingness to find a solution, both Stade and Racing’s games (against Castres and Montpellier respectively) were postponed.

More about the deal that was?

While much was unclear, Lorenzetti did confirm one thing. Current Racing 92 coaching staff Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit would continue at the helm of the new team, and be in charge of player selection.

65 players contracted to both Stade and Racing, with only 45 players allowed. Naturally this led to rumours regarding who would go and who would stay. Stade fly-half Jules Plisson was reported to be on his way to league leaders La Rochelle for next season, while scrum-half Will Genia already confirmed his switch to Japan.

With the declaration that Savare would be president for the first two years before handing over to Lorenzetti, it didn't take long for some in the rugby media to raise questions over the merger.

Paris Mayor furious

One person in particular who had reason to smile with the eventual decision is Anne Hidalgo. The Mayor of Paris was not best pleased this time last week, citing the substantial public funding of the Stade Jean-Bouin, home of Stade Français.

Hidalgo said: “the stadium was entirely renovated by the city in order to give the team the best training and playing conditions. Do not draw a line under this.”

Taxpayer money went into the re-building work of Jean-Bouin and it was certainly one of the controversies that may bring the merger to an abrupt halt.

LNR talks break down

The LNR convened with both Stade and Racing during the week alongside players’ union leader Robins Tchale-Watchou. Tachale-Watchou proposed that the merger be called off so that Stade players come off strike while the LNR chief, Paul Goze claimed “a solution can be found.”

Whether any of the above, or a combination of all played the decisive role in negotiations is unclear and largely irrelevant. Savare remains in favour of the merger but respects the decision and will of the Stade players and fans.

One fears unfortunately, that this may not be the end of the story just yet.

Former Stade Français hooker, who enjoyed two spells at the club between 2004 and 2010 gave his thoughts on the proposed merger on Saturday (in French). Read more about the merge in English here and the thoughts of a player here, via Paris-based Gavin Mortimer

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