Rugby brings French town alive with colour and collective pride

When La Rochelle became European champions for a second consecutive year in May, some 50,000 fans gathered for a victory parade at the town’s old port, including British supporter Lynn Andrews

Stade Rochelais’ club colours and logo adorn La Rochelle’s town hall in 2021 and, inset, British fan Lynn Andrews celebrates in the crowd after the club won its first European title last year
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My father instilled an interest in rugby from a young age, but it was La Rochelle that made me a true fan of the sport when I moved here from the UK 14 years ago.

The town’s deeply anchored passion for its local rugby union club was unknown to me then.

And I had no idea that I, too, would soon be swept up into the arms of the extended Stade Rochelais family.

Surprise gift

A surprise birthday gift of two match tickets was all it took. One game and I was hooked.

These days I am a season ticket-holder, and my well-worn, player-autographed supporter’s flag gives me credibility as a fully-fledged fan.

I shared the joy of their Champions Cup victory over Irish side Leinster in May with a clan of Stade Rochelais-obsessed friends at the town’s old port.

Like so many other supporters here, their love of the club is a family affair spanning several generations.

Our friendship has been forged on the noisy terraces of the Stade Marcel-Deflandre, but their grandparents remember when the stadium was a single stand and the team mostly confined to the second division.

Back then, winning was not a priority: participating honourably was the credo.

With no championship silverware to brag about until recently, the club has flourished for more than 125 years on the traditional rugby values of respect, humility, and team spirit.

Those tenets are the backbone of the enduring support that still binds club and town today.

That support is a visible feature of La Rochelle everyday life.

Spend a few hours at the Saturday morning market and you will soon get the idea.

Yellow and black

Here, the club’s yellow-and-black colours adorn shops, eateries and market stalls.

Residents, meanwhile, parade the streets in an eclectic array of two-tone attire, whether that be conventional logoed sportswear or something more chic.

Like the composition of a rugby team, La Rochelle fans come in all shapes and sizes, and this English-born supporter is proud to stand among them.

There are certainly a lot of us. The 16,000-capacity stadium is usually jam-packed.

The last 80 consecutive premier league matches have all been sold out – a record-breaking statistic unrivalled in the Top 14 league.

With 13,000 season ticket-holders occupying most of the seats, one-off tickets are like gold dust.

Season tickets do not come easily either. Expect to linger on the waiting list for a good three years.

I, for one, will not be giving up my season ticket any time soon.

Family spirit

Ultimately, it is the club’s family spirit that is its most endearing asset.

The heroes aboard that victory bus in May, now internationally recognised European champions, are still considered by the whole town as our dear beloved sons.

We know them by their team nicknames – Saz, Bourga, Leps – and nod amicably when we see them out shopping or picking up their children from school.

Yes, their giant frames make them unmissable in a crowd, but in true Stade Rochelais tradition, it is their genuine humility that makes these players stand out in the locals’ hearts and minds.

The patriarch of the Stade Rochelais family is its unassuming 74-year-old president, Vincent Merling.

Merlin(g) the Wizard

Affectionately known as ‘Merlin(g) the Wizard’, this former player and local entrepreneur has sure-footedly overseen the club’s spectacular ascent.

His best trick was the appointment of Ronan O’Gara as head coach in 2021.

This dour hero of the Irish national team was not an instant hit with supporters.

Erroneously labelling him ‘English’, die-hard fans disliked him watching matches from a box high above the pitch.

He was arrogant, too distant.

Over time, however, the doughty O’Gara has turned the tide of popular opinion.

In heavily accented French, he made it clear he was not in La Rochelle for the craic. He was all about winning.

And slowly but surely, that has happened.

At Marcel-Deflandre, he has shown himself to be the ultimate tactician, and his name rings out from the stands.

Now, no one deliberately mistakes his Irish nationality.

As European Championship euphoria subsided, the domestic season led to a Top 14 final against south-west arch-rival Toulouse in June.

Unthinkable opportunity

It was a hitherto unthinkable opportunity to become both French and European champions in the same year.

Sadly, that dream was not to be.

Victory was snatched from La Rochelle in the final minutes of the game, finishing 29-26.

It was the cruellest of ends to the most exceptional of seasons.

So what now?

Well, Ronan O’Gara certainly hasn’t said his last winning words.

And La Rochelle’s armada of yellow-and-black-clad supporters are ready and waiting to crowd to the old port again next year to welcome home our victorious heroes.

Ici, ici, c’est La Rochelle.

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