The Unlikely Lads Stade Rochelais

From the Bay of Biscay to the River Tyne is a journey of 1,294 kilometres, La Rochelle swapped their Atlantic coastal home for the North Sea on Friday night, as they faced Clermont in the European Challenge Cup Final.

There are no direct flights between Charante-Maritime and Tyne & Wear, so the journey for supporters was not a simple or inexpensive one, when added to the extorniate hotel room charges the average fan was virtually priced out of the occasion.

Yet still they came, Newcastle was transformed into a sea of yellow as fans from both teams ebbed and flowed past St James Park, though on this occasion both yellow shirted teams decided on a change of strip, La Rochelle decided on black and white, perhaps in a horizontally striped tribute to the Magpies.

In fact the only men wearing yellow on the field of play were the match officials, headed by referee Wayne Barnes.

This was La Rochelle’s first major final, whilst Clermont’s record of ten defeats, in various finals over the last twenty years, was hanging over them in sword of Damacles fashion.

The boys from the Bay of Biscay did not play in the Top flight of French rugby until 2010, but were immediately relegated, they returned in 2015 and their rise has been rapid, with a Top 14 semi final berth in 2017, and a Champions Cup Quarter final last season.

But they were second best this time out, Clermont thoroughly deserved their win, La Rochelle had no answer to the their powerful driving maul, and in the end the Michelin men won with something to spare.

For the jaune et noir, Kevin Gourdon was immense, constantly breaking the gain line and offloading majestically.

Ouini Antonio scored La Rochelle’s only try a three metre rumble after which he was replaced, at 6ft 6 and close on 24 stone, presumably the distance got the better of him, as he left the field looking totally shattered.

Stade Rochelais are now established in the big time, and despite the hurt of this loss it will be a big learing experience to fuel them for further challenges to come.

The team will get a huge ovation at their next home game at Stade Marcel Deflandre, where the hard core fans, “Les Bagnards” will march from the city centre banging their drums as they go.

On 10 January 1941 Marcel Deflandre became president of La Rochelle, he joined the “Honor and Homeland” group of the French resistance in 1942, where he commanded the supplies and gasoline section. He was arrested on October 9 1943, and executed by the Nazis on 11 January 1944, sometimes the pain losing a European final needs to be put into some kind of perspective.

One thing is for sure Le Jeaune et Noir are here to stay and Bon Chance to all of them.


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