The Top 14 is currently the richest league in world rugby, the competition is dominated by mega rich clubs who seem intent on splashing the cash on the biggest signings. Toulon are especially guilty of this and seem to sign players without deciding how they fit into the team. The Top 14 has become infamous for attracting big name stars from overseas looking for handy pay check or the opportunity to compete for trophies.
While the big names in Top 14 rugby continue to spend, spend and spend some more. There is one club who lurk on the fringes, who don’t sign massive superstars and punch way above their weight grade. I want to shed some light on La Rochelle the true underdog story in French Rugby.
The History Of La Rochelle In Top Flight Rugby.
The club has certainly experienced many ups and downs since being founded in 1896, La Rochelle had spent a large amount of its history jumping from the second division of French Rugby back to the 1st division and then back down again.
The club competed in the Top 16 competition from 1997-2002 before relegation at the end of the 2001/02 season. For many years The Atlantic La Rochelle narrowly missed out on promotion to the Top 14, the club reached the D2 (Division 2) play-off final in 2007 and contested in two consecutive semi-finals in 2008 and 2009. In 2010 the club succeeded in its goal to reach the Top 14 beating Lyon in the D2 final.
The Atlantic La Rochelle performed admirably in their return to top flight rugby however the club finished 13th and were relegated to the second division. In 2012 the club launched a 5-year project called “Growing Together 2015” which included
- Increasing their stadium capacity to 15,000 seats.
- Improving their budget.
- Boosting the amount of money flowing into the club.
- Creating a professional team with 30% club-trained players.
In 2014 The Atlantic La Rochelle achieved promotion once again and achieved all of their objectives. The club retained it’s Top 14 status the next season and created another project called “Writing our history 2020”, the club removed Atlantic from its name and a new logo was created. The club has finished 9th, 9th, 1st and 7th in the following seasons. La Rochelle now have the ambition of becoming one of the leading clubs in French rugby.
The La Rochelle Way Of Playing Rugby.
La Rochelle love to play expansive rugby by moving the ball around fast and spreading their players out wide. They love to attack in compact groups by flooding one section of the field to confuse opposition defence. The philosophy relies on the ball handling skills of their forwards too with their players being required to pass the ball accurately in narrow areas and under pressure from opposition defenders.
The idea is create plenty of options for the ball carrier and ensure he always has support when entering contact. La Rochelle have an ideal balance in their team, the club has large forwards who can dominate and achieve gain-line success but they also have back line who are creative and score plenty of tries. On form the side are an absolute joy to watch and can tear any team apart.
Before the 2017/18 season La Rochelle signed 11 players with 8 of them being French, the club love to sign French players who have been forgotten or misused by rival clubs. Kevin Gourdan is the best example of this, the former Clermont player never established himself in the team during his 4 years with the club. In 2012 he signed with La Rochelle and since then he has become irreplaceable in the side making 143 appearances for La Rochelle and Gourdan has also won 19 caps for France.
In recent years La Rochelle have signed 20-year-old hooker Pierre Bourgarit from 3rd tier side Auch, 24-year-old left-winger Gabriel Lacroix from 2nd tier club Albi and Dany Priso a 24-year-old loose head prop from Stade Francais, all of these players have gone on to play for France. La Rochelle sign players who are going to fit in and benefit their team, former All Black Victor Vito signed in 2016 and has made 52 appearances for the club, winning the French Top 14 player of the year in 2017. La Rochelle are a second chance for many players to succeed in professional rugby and these same players repay the club on the field.
Coaching Staff & Budget.
From 2014 to 2018 La Rochelle was the under the guidance of coaching duo Patrice Collazo and Xavier Garbajosa. The pair have guided La Rochelle to the European Challenge Cup semi-finals, the Top 14 semi-finals and 4 consecutive seasons of top flight rugby. Collazo played as a prop during his playing career and Garbajosa played wing or full back. Both coaches clearly have different rugby philosophies but they have complemented each other nicely and La Rochelle have benefited.
Patrice Collazo left La Rochelle at the end of 2017/18 season after spending 7 years at the club. His departure will leave a huge gaping hole at the club and it will difficult to replace him. However Garbajosa has stayed on and extended his contract to stay at La Rochelle until 2020. Xavier Garbajosa’s new partner in crime is Gregory Patat, it will intriguing to see if this new partnership will fail or flourish.
La Rochelle operate on a much lower budget compared to their league rivals, for example their budget for the 2017/18 was 22.6 million euros which is dwarfed by 31.6 million euros of Clermont Auvergne. In La Rochelle’s most recent fixture against Clermont they destroyed them 51-20 at home. The club is currently the tenth richest in the league however with more time in the Top 14 and the continued support the club receives from its loyal supporters this statistic will surely change.
La Rochelle are the best supported club in the Top 14 with an incredible 99% of the Stade-Marcel Deflandre’s seating capacity being filled. The maximum capacity the stadium holds is 16,000 and the average attendance in 2017/18 season was 15,904. La Rochelle is city which is passionate about rugby and the club receives every fragment of that passion.
Prospects for the upcoming season.
This season La Rochelle will compete in their fifth consecutive season of Top 14 rugby and will compete in the European Challenge Cup. This season will be a transition period for the club and hopefully it will not effect results on the field. Bedding in a fresh coaching team is always a challenge however I think the club will be able to deal with this situation correctly. La Rochelle will face Bristol, Zebre and Enisey-Stm in their Challenge cup group and they should qualify for the quarter-finals comfortably. I expect La Rochelle to be challenging for the playoffs in the Top 14 and anything less will be a disappointment.
The amount of success La Rochelle have achieved over the past couple of seasons has been extraordinary and the club has ambitions of achieving even more. On the paper they should struggle however the club punches above its weight and competes with big names in the Top 14 comfortably. La Rochelle are a prime example of the effect good ownership, recruitment, coaching and support can have on a club, the sky really is the limit and La Rochelle are leading the way.
I would like to credit the La Rochelle website, Sky Sports, Squidge Rugby and the official Top 14 YouTube channel with the articles and videos provided in this blog. All relevent links are below.