Top 14 chiefs to meet over Racing-Stade Francais merger

Nicolas KIENAST
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Stade Francais' Hugh Pyle (left) outjumps Racing 92's Wenceslas Lauret during a French league match in Colombes in October 2016

France's professional rugby leaders are to hold an emergency meeting Friday amid a strike threat by players over the controversial planned merger between Top 14 clubs Racing 92 and Stade Francais.

Racing's billionaire owner Jacky Lorenzetti and Stade Francais counterpart Thomas Savare announced the plan on Monday and Stade Francais players have threatened industrial action.

The Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) said the proposal "provokes many reactions, questions and concerns, both for the social and cultural impacts linked to this merger and the sporting consequences for the Top 14."

"Representatives of both sporting companies (professional) and associations (amateur), players' representatives and coaches" were invited to a meeting "to assess and ensure the best handling of all dimensions of the proposal".

"The LNR calls for dialogue, will pay close attention to this affair, unprecedented in the world of professional rugby, and intends to work to ensure the interests of all stakeholders, particularly the players, coaches and employees of the two clubs."

Meanwhile, Stade found support from Top 14 rivals Toulon who announced Wednesday that their players would wear pink armbands in Sunday's match at Grenoble. Pink is the team colour of the Paris giants.

"In support of the players and the history of Stade Francais, players and staff of Toulon will wear pink armbands at Grenoble," said Toulon in a statement.

Earlier this week Toulon's outspoken president Mourad Boudjellal, who has often jousted with Lorenzetti in the past, was scathing in his criticism of the merger.

"An empty stadium plus an empty stadium will perhaps be a half-empty stadium," he said.

- Federation's disapproval -

Robins Tchale Watchou, head of Provale, the professional rugby players' union, added that the French rugby federation (FFR) were against the merger after exiting a meeting also attended by FFR number two Serge Simon.

Simon, a former Stade Francais player, voiced "very clearly the federation's disapproval on the merit and the form" of the merger during the meeting, Tchale Watchou reported, Simon himself making no comment to the press.

"In a climate of tension, you must leave room for dialogue, but the condition of the players for the notice of strike to be lifted is that there is the definitive and total stop of this merger plan," said Tchale Watchou.

"I can only be optimistic, I hope for rugby and the players that we will find a favourable outcome."

Current Racing coaches Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit have been inked in as the coaches of the new venture, and Travers said it had never crossed his mind to refuse such a prospect.

"Who would hesitate, when you're coaches and you have a passion to coach, to accept that type of proposal?" Travers asked.

"When you look from a sporting point of view, what it can bring, what it can be, I don't know a coach today who would not want to coach this type of sporting entity."

Travers, who with Labit led Racing to the Top 14 title in 2016, said the merger proposal had been first raised before Racing's game against Grenoble on March 4.

The coach admitted that his players had been surprised.

"Everybody was shocked," he said. "But we tried to remain focused on the essential thing, the match" against Montpellier on the weekend.

Across the city, Stade Francais lock Pascal Pape, a 65-times capped France international, slammed the fusion of the winners of the past two Top 14 titles into one super club as "the death of 136 years of the club's history".

Players voted overwhelmingly for strike action and will not train or play in Saturday's Top 14 clash against Castres, he said.

Rival clubs expressed fears over the creation of a new super club while the French Rugby Federation and the Paris city government complained they had been kept in the dark about the move.

Lorenzetti paved the way for a cull of players, saying half the combined roster of about 90 professionals on the books at the two clubs could be axed.