We have experienced extreme joys in our club, with generations of players saving it from relegation, taking it to the next level. In Marseille it was a very explosive emotion, the feeling of reaching the Grail, a cocktail of immense happiness and pride … We are champions of Europe … A feeling experienced by all the wonderful family of our Stade Rochelais and shared on the port of La Rochelle.
You were born in La Rochelle, you played for La Rochelle, you have been president of this club since 1991. What did lifting the European Cup mean for you?
It’s strange. Honestly, lifting a trophy is the ambition of all clubs, but for us to be European champions was a completely new ambition. I have been president for more than thirty years and have never given myself the right to dream of such a reward. It was something forbidden but today we made it. This is why the emotion is extreme, but also internal. This is not expressed, it is a great inner happiness, a great pride.
We also talked about a brace, which only three French teams (Toulouse in 1996 and 2021 and Toulon in 2014) have managed …
Things have changed in recent years, the club has grown. And it is true that it has become an achievable goal. I have a very strong thought for the generations of players who have allowed the stadium to remain at the highest level and for the current generation to award an entire club with the trophy of European champions. I’m sure we’ll be French champions tomorrow because the club has changed and our goals are different today. I still remember hearing what we were told not long ago: “We probably better stay in Pro D 2 because the Top 14 is impossible, we will suffer”. Fortunately we refused to listen to him. We had the ambition to go up. We stabilized in the Top 14, leading the standings, with the intention – in the humility we know – to win titles. The first is that of European champion which, for us, is extraordinary. It is quite exceptional.
Will this generation 2022 remain special to you?
It is a difficult question, because I have had so many emotional relationships with all the players, whoever they are … it is part of my management, I have very close relationships with them, I have known wonderful moments with past generations. Today I thank from the bottom of me this generation that has finally rewarded all the players, managers, members and fans who have followed one another to make our club grow. I have a “prestigious” recognition. It’s so prestigious, what they did.
So much so that the 35,000 people present at Porto Vecchio on May 29 will still talk about it in 10, 20 or 30 years …
This trophy will remain etched forever in the memory of all the players who won it and of our audience, this family of the Stade Rochelais who accompanied them to bring it back to La Rochelle, and who deservedly celebrated it. It was a reward for the players but also for this great family. I took the liberty of saying “we are all European champions” because we all participated. The club is this extraordinary crowd, these loyal members, these salaried members of the Stadium and its managers and shareholders who have made it champion of Europe. Together we have won.
So how did you experience the elimination in the Top 14 play-off in Toulouse?
For me we didn’t lose in Toulouse, we lost the chance to do the double during the regular season, especially in Biarritz, where we passed. The defeats did not allow us to directly qualify for the semifinals, as happened last season. The staff could therefore not manage the physique and freshness needed to be there at the right time. In Toulouse I felt that this freshness had suddenly disappeared, which punished us. Running after two titles is chasing two championships at the same time, it’s complicated. It is an apprenticeship. This year we have learned to win but also to prepare for the end of the season as efficiently as possible, avoiding to ruin ourselves during the year.
Is learning how to win really important?
Yes. For some years with Pierre (Venayre, the general manager, ed) we wanted to change things, believe in ourselves and in our ability to win. With this Marseille final I really felt something completely new in the group. I felt a desire, a determination, a confidence in our strength and in the preparation that absentees like Victor (Vito), Tawera (Kerr-Barlow) and Kévin (Gourdon) provided. They transformed negative pressure and emotion into positive pressure and emotion. And then, on the pitch, there was Ronan O’Gara’s excellent tactical preparation against his best enemies at Leinster. I was sure of myself, which is special (smile).
It sounds crazy when you say it, but Ronan O’Gara is only 5 years oldAnd manager you met, after Jean-Pierre Elissalde, Serge Milhas, Patrice Collazo and Jono Gibbes. Does their lineage follow?
Yes of course. He is in charge of making our professional team win. We can describe his approach as Anglo-Saxon, it’s different. I can’t compare them to each other. What Ronan has in common with Patrice is that they instilled the will to win and above all contempt for defeat. Everyone is impregnated with it today.
Is the fact that the club’s first major trophy being won with a foreign manager an affront to the refusal shown by the first team to integrate Graham Mourie, the captain of the All Blacks, in 1977?
I cannot reduce the history of La Rochelle rugby to Graham Mourie’s anecdote. We are in another time, in professional rugby. What we should all be proud of is that we managed to be European champions while maintaining our values, our cultural identity. We, Stade Rochelais, are European champions, which is truly an exceptional result. And being at the Stade Rochelais, in the culture of the Stade Rochelais, does not mean rejecting a player who wants to come to us, however prestigious he may be. On the contrary, it means being open and wanting to help the club win by remaining yourself.
Pierre Venayre recalled after the coronation in Marseille that in 2011 people urged you to change your economic model, to appeal to a patron. Is this trophy a rematch for clubs based on a real economy?
This does not date back to 2011 but has always been. There were “better to stay in Pro D 2 because we will suffer, the club is not made to go to the Top 14”. And on the contrary, we also heard “we are not in the Top 14, we will never be a great club because we have no patrons”. Even “the president refuses the arrival of a patron”. It has never been like this, no patron has come forward and somewhere, good for us. He allowed us to remain faithful to the strategy, to the concept we had of the club: sharing, community life, involving everyone. Today all the clubs that compliment us tell us “you were right, you have a perfect economic model. If you managed to be European champion with this model, why don’t we believe it too? “We have opened our eyes, inspired many clubs. In Lyon, and also in Toulouse, the fans came to thank me for rugby. It’s incredible ! But there is no revenge. It is so much joy and pride, with all the humility that this word does not imply, having given all together the means to win this club. I am not saying that a club run by a patron is a bad thing, mind you, I have no lessons to teach about it. But we had a conviction, we had been told for thirty years that we would never get there. We got there and today it opened in front of us to look for other titles.
We have indeed seen you fraternizing with the fans of Lyon and Toulouse ever since this European title …
(Laughs.) I recognize people who love rugby, this extraordinary discipline and sport … I love to connect with them, as well as with our fans. Here and there we meet rugby fans that we love, rugby that we are passionate about and when I hear it, I like to go to them to share these moments of pride for our rugby. Because defending La Rochelle means defending our club but also a concept of rugby. I am proud to defend this concept which allows many clubs to look to the future with positivity.
In Marseille, Ronan O’Gara spoke of a starting point. Do you agree with him?
Talk about a starting point for other achievements, other trophies. I completely agree with him. This is not the starting point for the 122-year-old Stade Rochelais, but in modern professional rugby it is truly a starting point for other great successes. I am firmly convinced, like him.