Exciting La Rochelle go to Wasps with growing reputation for creative artistry
As rapidly establish a reputation as Europe’s great entertainers, it will come as little surprise that they always sell out their Stade Marcel-Deflandre. That they did so for a match played 500 miles away, however, is perhaps a better illustration of how something special is brewing in the Bay of Biscay.
For, like all French heavyweights over the years, fanatical support is a prerequisite and La Rochelle have it in spades. The hardcore call themselves “the Convicts” (les Bagnards), because their black-and-yellow-hooped shirts make them look like jailbirds, and before every home match they march from the city centre to the stadium, thrashing their drums as they go. They even did so in their thousands in May to watch the Top 14 semi-final against Toulon on the big screen while the game took place in real life in front of 65,000 at Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome.
It was a match they lost but may well have won if not for Pierre Aguillon’s red card, though they did still finish first in the Top 14 last season and with also being promoted in 2010, comparisons with Exeter Chiefs become obvious. There are differences with the Premiership champions – La Rochelle were relegated the following season before returning in 2014 – but like the Chiefs they are the new kids on the block, doing things their own way and winning no end of plaudits as a result.
This is their first season in the and they have become the only team to win their first three matches in their debut campaign. It is not only their success that resonates, however, it is the manner in which they have gone about it. The Top 14 has a reputation as a forward-orientated, turgid league, favouring size rather than the sort of artistry for which France is traditionally known. As such, La Rochelle’s joie de vivre has been all the more eye-catching. By the same token their ability to win on their travels is a break from another French stereotype – last season they won seven away matches in the Top 14.
La Rochelle have scored 15 tries and 124 points in their three European matches, topping the charts in both, and Sunday’s trip to Wasps is also likely to keep the scorers busy. But more than that, La Rochelle play with a freedom that captivates. At home to last weekend their commitment to keeping the ball in hand was a delight, Levani Botia a force of nature.
There is an obvious enjoyment to it all, and for that the backs coach Xavier Garbajosa – the France full-back during their unforgettable 1999 World Cup semi-final win against New Zealand – takes a vast amount of credit. They have recruited well, too. Victor Vito was named the Top 14 player of the season last term and is a quite remarkable back-rower – producing the kind of performances French clubs dream about when writing cheques for fringe All Blacks. In addition, Tawera Kerr-Barlow has also joined to swell the ranks of New Zealanders, led by the captain and second-row stalwart Jason Eaton.
Botia is perhaps their most dynamic talent – the Fijian flanker, recently converted from centre – while Geoffrey Doumayrou, good enough for the All Blacks, according to his former Stade Français coach Greg Cooper, and Kevin Gourdon are among their best French players.
Brock James and Ryan Lamb share fly-half duties and if the Englishman’s move to the Atlantic coast came as a surprise, it makes more sense when recalling that the head coach, Patrice Collazo, was part of the Gloucester front row in Lamb’s first season at Kingsholm. Indeed, Lamb first encountered his current coach as a 15-year-old at Gloucester, when he was called upon to help Collazo with moving house and was promptly told to put his back into it.
Collazo is a tempestuous coach – he was caught on camera losing his rag at half-time to amusing effect during their defeat by Gloucester last season – but he is undoubtedly popular and his mischievous streak extends to making last-minute changes to his team to keep players on their toes.
The enormous French prop Uini Atonio has cropped up in the second row a few times while Gourdon has been deployed in the centres and Jérémy Sinzelle, a winger by trade, has even appeared at fly-half. “He always does everything to get me as motivated as possible,” says Gourdon. “What he does is justified, I trust him even if I know that sometimes it pisses me off.”
Clearly, Collazo and Garbajosa complement each other well and perhaps we should not be surprised considering they were team-mates at Toulouse during their all-conquering days under France’s current head coach, Guy Novès. “[Collazo’s] name came to me,” says the La Rochelle president, Vincent Merling, who appointed his coach in 2011. “I immediately appreciated the man and his qualities. I sensed a man of conviction, full of certainties. Patrice hates defeat, he does not let anything go. He is a hard man but of great sensitivity at the same time. He’s demanding but fair, which makes him worthy of his players. He has already accomplished a lot but he is a man who will have a break only when he has achieved the goal he has set for himself with Stade Rochelais.”