Top 14 matches cancelled amid strike action

by AFP

The controversy over the planned merger of Paris rugby giants Stade Francais and Racing 92 took another dramatic twist Friday when their weekend matches were postponed, plunging the money-spinning Top 14 into turmoil.

The French National Rugby League (LNR) postponed Racing 92's scheduled game against Montpellier and Stade Francais' clash with Castres after Stade players continued strike action in protest at the plan to merge the two clubs.

While Castres accepted the decision to push back their game against Stade, Montpellier said they would not before eventually accepting defeat in their appeal bid.

LNR president Paul Goze said the postponements were "to preserve a certain sporting equity for the end of the championship".

"The NRL wants to give every opportunity for dialogue in a calm climate and to preserve the equity of the Top 14."

Montpellier wanted their game against defending champions Racing to go ahead as planned at 1945GMT on Saturday.

But they were told that their appeal against the cancellation could not be heard until Saturday night.

"The game is postponed to a later date that will be communicated next week.

The team of Montpellier apologises for this postponement independent of its desire," said a club statement.

Racing's billionaire owner Jacky Lorenzetti and Stade Francais counterpart Thomas Savare announced the shock merger plans on Monday.

Stade players voted overwhelmingly for strike action and refused to train or play against Castres this weekend or other matches this season.

Racing players said the events of the past week had prevented them from preparing properly for the weekend and had requested the postponement.

On Thursday, players from the defending champions issued a statement saying they were unable to agree on whether or not to take similar collective action to Stade.

Savare insisted that the merger remained on track and that "dialogue had been renewed" with the players after crisis talks Friday at LNR headquarters in Paris.

"The project is not being called into question. It has not been finalised, it remains to be finalised, clarified and built up with the stakeholders. But broadly speaking everyone understands it," said Savare.

"We are in the process of informing and consulting employees. There is no decision made, but a project presented, a fierce determination of the two presidents to implement this project. We are both convinced that this is the right thing to do," he added.

The various parties will return to LNR headquarters on Monday to "continue discussions", the LNR said.

 Striking Stade Francais players were hailed by fans earlier Friday as they arrived for the talks with LNR officials.

Almost all Stade players were present but only player representatives including Pascal Papé, Laurent Sempéré, Antoine Burban, Meyer Bosman and Alexandre Flanquart were allowed into the talks.

Will Genia played in his first French win. Photo: AFPThe rest waited outside before the players emerged an hour later with Saturday's match against Castres still scheduled.

Racing 92 players were also present including captain Dimitri Szarzewski, Manuel Carizza, Xavier Chauveau, Virgile Lacombe and Matthieu Voisin.

Lorenzetti and Savare were also there.

Stade Français players arrived to cheers of "Go Paris, your supporters are here" by an enthusiastic group of up to a hundred fans who then made a guard of honour on front of LNR headquarters.

Some waved pink flags -- the colour of Stade Francais -- and branded banners with "No to the merger," while a handful of Racing fans were also present, some favourable to the project, others not.

"Jean-Bouin (Stade Francais stadium) is our home," shouted some when the Racing players arrived minutes later.

"I won't give up anything," replied Savare, who was branded a "coward" by one Stade fan.

"It is a great cause for us, it was important to show the whole of France that we were 100 percent solid," Stade Francais centre Jonathan Danty told the crowd after leaving the LNR.

"If everyone came here it's because we believe and hope we can get what we want."