Uncertainty reigns after Top 14 bombshell

Beth Newman Profile
by AFP & Beth Newman

Top 14 clubs Racing 92 and Stade Francais have dropped a bombshell, announcing an imminent merger between the two Paris teams.

The two most recent Top 14 champions announced the news on Monday night Australian time, leaving the future of a number of high-profile players potentially under a cloud from next season.

Wallabies halfback Will Genia, contracted with Stade Francais for another season, is one of a handful of Aussies who could be affected by the merger, with former Super Rugby players Hugh Pyle and Paul Alo-Emile also in Stade's ranks.

Racing 92 have their own share of stars, headlined by All Blacks legend Dan Carter.

If Carter and Genia both have their contracts honoured, the new union could throw up a mouthwatering halves combination with Carter and Genia.

Last season’s Top 14 champions Racing 92 has been in the midst of a number of scandals in recent times, most notably the recent arrest of Ali Williams for cocaine possession, with the club sacking their star.

Just last weekend,though,  flyhalf Carter was booed off the field on their home ground, playing his first game returning from injury, contributing just one penalty as the side lost to La Rochelle.

Stade has had battles on the field, currently sitting 12th in the Top 14 league, with just eight wins from 20 games this season, just two seasons after taking the 2014-15 title.

The clubs released a statement on Monday night Australian time, confirming the radical move.

“These two flagship clubs of Paris and the Hauts de Seine, beyond the sporting rivalry they have enjoyed, have many other similarities: a strong local and regional anchorage, a historic educational mission, ancestral ties with The Olympic movement or an inextinguishable will to progress in all areas the statement read, translated from French."

“It is on the basis of these principles that the two clubs lay the foundations for a merger project by pooling their resources to better cope with the challenges of performance and education.”

Rivals expressed concern about the creation of a rugby behemoth as Racing's real estate billionaire owner Jacky Lorenzetti said he wanted to "build day after day the reference of French rugby."

"The merger will create a super club," said Yann Roubert, the president of Lyon.

"The combined talents of these two clubs, the last two champions of France, are pretty formidable."

Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal said the deal would change the face of Top 14 rugby.

"We have entered a new era of big capitalism, where money comes before the human aspect," he said, decrying the fact that top players would lose their jobs.

Lorenzetti said in a letter to supporters that the two Racing coaches Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit, who will take over coaching duties at the new club, would have to "make choices".

"Players will be axed. They've got 45 players, we've got 45 players, 45 + 45 = 45. - Jacky Lorenzetti

"Merit will be the criteria, probably youth and the factor of being selectable" for France, Lorenzetti said.

Opposition to the merger came swiftly from disgruntled Stade Francais players with Stade lock Paul Gabrillagues the most vocally critical of the move.

"I won't be part of this," said Stade backrower Sekou Macalou while teammate and international lock Pascal Pape tweeted: "My sadness is so great."

The news sent shockwaves through France's rugby federation (FFR).

"The FFR is shocked to learn via the media this project leading to the disappearance of one of the two biggest clubs in French rugby," a statement announced.

The federation added it was "extremely stunned at the supposed creation of a new club without being consulted".

Lorenzetti has spent heavily on top talent such as All Black legend Dan Carter, now in the second year of a three-year deal.

Racing won the championship last year, but are now slumbering in seventh and Carter was jeered off the pitch after a weekend defeat to leaders La Rochelle.

Stade Francais counterpart Thomas Savare, a finance and credit card technology tycoon, has likewise paid heavily for the likes of Italian captain Sergio Parisse, Australian scrum-half Will Genia and South African fly-half Morne Steyn.

Each club has built, or is building, a new stadium as well as big squads.

Stade Francais's players are fuming after the shock news overnight. Photo: AFPNo immediate details were given of their ground plans, but Lorenzetti said: "We will be thinking about that in the coming days."

Racing were languishing in France's second division when Lorenzetti bought them in 2006. Savare took over Stade Francais in 2011 when they were threatened with bankruptcy and relegation.

The clubs have spent hundreds of millions of euros on redeveloping and acquiring new players since 2010.

Stade Francais's Jean Bouin stadium, owned by the city of Paris, was redeveloped in 2013 and reopened with capacity increased from 13,000 to 20,000.

Racing are building a new 220 million-euro 32,000-seat stadium in the La Defense business district. It should have opened in January but this has been put back to the end of the year.

The French National Rugby League (LNR) said in a statement it was following the merger and would "accompany the management teams in the weeks ahead towards the realisation of the project."

An immediate consequence of killing off one Top 14 team means that the 13th placed XV -- currently Grenoble -- will now probably avoid relegation.

Racing and Stade Francais were among the first clubs created when rugby union was introduced to France in the 19th century. Racing won the first championship final against Stade in 1892. Stade got their revenge the following year.