Based in the centre of La Rochelle, a city on the western coast of France, the stadium bears witness to the history of rugby. Stade Marcel-Deflandre, home to the rugby union club Stade Rochelais, represents the defiance of a community that faced adversity during World War Two.
La Rochelle fell under German occupation in 1940. Under the Vichy regime a series of restrictive measures were imposed. Among these was a complete ban on the burgeoning sport of rugby league (rugby union was already established).
The ban was not merely a sporting restriction. It was a calculated move by establishment rugby union figures in the government who sought to eliminate the rival strand of the game.
A threat to the status quo
Rugby league had strong political associations with the left-wing Popular Front party and the wartime Resistance.
Its popularity among these groups posed a threat to the status quo. By suppressing rugby league the authorities hoped to suppress these political movements as well.
La Rochelle was not exempt from these measures, particularly because its geography made it a vital strategic location for Germany’s occupying force; with the building of a new submarine base.
Its rugby league club, La Rochelle-Etudiants XIII, faced a challenging predicament. Forced to confront the ban head-on, the club was left with a choice. To adapt La Rochelle-Etudiants XIII merged with the local rugby union club, Stade Rochelais, in 1941.
The man who oversaw this merger, Marcel Deflandre, played a pivotal role in the story of La Rochelle's rugby team and its resistance against the occupying forces.
Deflandre, in addition to his involvement in the rugby community, was a leading member of the local Resistance movement, working to undermine the German occupation.
Unfortunately, Deflandre's courage and determination caught the attention of the Gestapo. On October 9, 1943, he was arrested, marking a tragic turning point in the resistance effort. A few months later, on January 11, 1944, Deflandre was executed in Bordeaux.
In honour of Deflandre's bravery and his deep connection to rugby, the stadium in La Rochelle was officially renamed Stade Marcel-Deflandre in 1947. This act not only memorialised a local hero but also served as a constant reminder of the power of sports in times of adversity.