Top 14: Could La Rochelle become French champions?
After four rounds of Top 14 action, La Rochelle are sitting pretty at the top of the table. Can they keep it up?
A gambler would have got enticing odds if he’d bet a few euros on La Rochelle to be leading the Top 14 a month into the new season. Four matches gone and the club from the west coast of France are ahead of the pack by two points.
Clermont lie second, then come Stade Francais, Toulon and Montpellier. Swap league points for budgets totals and the table would be reversed with La Rochelle’s €18.2m dwarfed by Clermont (€30.5m), Stade (€27.5m), Toulon (€25.5m) and Montpellier (€24.20m). Only Bayonne and Brive have smaller financial resources than La Rochelle.
So what’s the secret of their early season success? Firstly the calendar has been kind. Their opening day encounter at home to Clermont (whose first three matches were away) has been their toughest test, a match they drew 30-30. Then there have been wins against Grenoble, Castres and Lyon, none of whom are likely to be title contenders come the end of the season.
La Rochelle’s generous fixture list continues until the European break with an away trip to Brive this Saturday and then home matches against Bayonne and Toulon. When the Top 14 shuts down for three weeks in the second week of October, La Rochelle could still be looking down on their rivals, and the hiatus is likely to have worked in their favour when the Top 14 season resumes at the end of the month.
For while Toulon, Racing, Clermont, Bordeaux, Castres and Toulouse launch their Champions Cup campaigns, La Rochelle have the gentler Challenge Cup to negotiate. French clubs traditionally treat Europe’s secondary competition with an indifference bordering on disdain, and it’s unlikely La Rochelle are going to field full-strength sides in a pool that contains Gloucester, Treviso and Bayonne.
They’ll give their key players a rest, keep them fresh for the serious business of the Top 14, particularly as their rivals will lose a raft of players to international commitments in November. For example, on the weekend of November 12/13 France play Samoa while La Rochelle host Toulouse. La Rochelle may lose Uini Atonio on France duty but Toulouse will probably be deprived of Sébastien Bézy, Yoann Maestri, Gaël Fickou, Maxime Medard and Yoann Huget.
There’ll be minimal disruption to their squad, a feature of La Rochelle in recent seasons, who dabble prudently and sparingly in the transfer market. When they do swoop, however, it’s for players who have been identified as possessing the necessary skills and character to complement the squad. This summer their marquee signing was former All Black Victor Vito, although the acquisition of veteran Australian fly-half Brock James from Clermont was a canny bit of business.
There’s also a stability in their coaching staff with coach Patrice Collazo in the job since 2011 and his assistant, Xavier Garbajosa, now in his third season. There have been none of the comings and goings and controversy that have marked certain Top 14 clubs in the last season or two. For that La Rochelle have president Vincent Merling to thank. When they were relegated to the ProD2 in 2011, Merling – who at 26 years in the job is the longest-serving Top 14 president – launched his ‘Grow Together 2015’ initiative, a long-term plan to develop a club with strong foundations on and off the pitch.
When it comes to attracting commercial partners, La Rochelle have a geographical advantage over their Top 14 rivals. Their closest neighbour is Brive, 300 km south east. So while Biarritz and Bayonne have suffered economically from their close proximity, as have Narbonne and Beziers, and Bourgoin and Lyon, La Rochelle have no clubs to compete with for local sponsorship. The same for spectators. La Rochelle’s average home gate in the 2015-16 season was 14,744, the fifth highest in the Top 14 behind Bordeaux, Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont
Patrice Collazo must have been a happy man when he saw this season’s Top 14 fixture list for the first time. A gentle start so his side can build some momentum before the string of tough matches in the spring. But once again fortune has smiled on La Rochelle. Starting on the weekend of January 28/29, La Rochelle have their most demanding sequence of matches: Toulon, Stade Francais, Racing 92 and Toulouse. The four matches fall during the Six Nations when, in accordance with the summer accord signed by the LNR and the FFR, it will be national coach Guy Noves who decides if his players can play for their clubs on non-tournament weekends and not the clubs, as was the case previously.
So come the start of April La Rochelle may still be sitting pretty at the top of the league. It’s a long shot, of course, but isn’t that what football fans said about Leicester 12 months ago?