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“This year, we have learned to win,” says Vincent Merling

In our club, we have known extreme joys, with generations of players who saved it from relegation, who took it to the next level. In Marseille, it was a very explosive emotion, the feeling of reaching the Grail, a cocktail of immense happiness and pride… We are European champions… A feeling felt by the whole wonderful family of our Stade Rochelais and shared on the port of La Rochelle.


The president of Stade Rochelais, conductor of its rise to power since 1991, felt great happiness and great pride in Marseille.

Xavier Leoty

You were born in La Rochelle, you played for La Rochelle, you have been president of this club since 1991. What did lifting the Champions Cup mean to you?

It’s weird. Quite honestly, lifting a trophy is the ambition of all clubs, but for us, being European champions was a completely new ambition. I have been president for more than thirty years and I have never allowed myself the right to dream of such a reward. It was something forbidden but today, we accomplished it. This is why the emotion is extreme, but also interior. This is not expressed, it is a great inner happiness, a great pride.

We even talked about a double, which only three French teams (Toulouse in 1996 and 2021 and Toulon in 2014) have managed…

Things have changed in recent years, the club has grown. And it is true that it has become an achievable goal. I have a very strong thought for the generations of players who have allowed the Stadium to remain at the top level and for the current generation to reward an entire club with the trophy of European champions. I am sure that tomorrow we will be champions of France because the club has changed and today our objectives are different. I still remember hearing what we were told not so long ago: “We’d probably better stay in Pro D 2 because the Top 14 is impossible, we’re going to suffer”. Luckily we refused to listen to that. We had the ambition to go up. We stabilized in the Top 14, at the top of the table, with the intention – in the humility that we know – of winning titles. The first is that of European champion which, for us, is extraordinary. It is quite exceptional.

The former 3rd line has always cultivated a special bond with the players who have succeeded at the club, such as Wiaan Liebenberg, here congratulated in Lens, after the semi-final of the Champions Cup.


The former 3rd line has always cultivated a special bond with the players who have succeeded at the club, such as Wiaan Liebenberg, here congratulated in Lens, after the semi-final of the Champions Cup.

XAVIER LEOTY

Will this generation 2022 remain special for you?

It’s a difficult question, because I’ve had so many emotional relationships with all the players, whoever they are… it’s part of my management, I have very close relationships with them, I’ve known wonderful times with past generations. Today, I thank from the depths of myself this generation which has finally rewarded all the players, leaders, partners and supporters who have followed one another to make our club grow. I have “prestigious” recognition. It’s so prestigious, what they did.

So much so that the 35,000 people present in the Old Port on May 29 will still be talking about it in 10, 20 or 30 years…

This trophy will remain etched forever in the memory of all the players who conquered it and of our public, this family from the Stade Rochelais who accompanied them to bring him back to La Rochelle, and who celebrated him deserved. It was a reward for the players but also for this big family. I allowed myself to say “we are all European champions” because we all took part. The club is this extraordinary public, these loyal partners, these salaried members of the Stadium and its managers and shareholders who have made it European champion. Together we won.

So how did you experience the elimination in the Top 14 play-off in Toulouse?

For me, we did not lose in Toulouse, we lost the possibility of achieving the double during the regular season, especially in Biarritz, where we went through. Defeats did not allow us to qualify directly for the semi-finals, as was the case last season. The staff could not therefore manage the physical and the freshness necessary to be there at the right time. In Toulouse, I felt that this freshness had suddenly disappeared, which punished us. Running after two titles is running after two championships at the same time, it’s complicated. It is an apprenticeship. This year, we learned to win but also to prepare for the end of the season in the most efficient way possible, avoiding spoiling during the year.

The president of the Yellow and Black shares Ronan O'Gara's conviction as to the prospects that have opened up to the Rochelais since their European coronation.


The president of the Yellow and Black shares Ronan O’Gara’s conviction as to the prospects that have opened up to the Rochelais since their European coronation.

XAVIER LEOTY

Learning to win, is it really important?

Yes. For a few years with Pierre (Venayre, the general manager, Editor’s note), we wanted to change things, to believe in ourselves and in our ability to win. With this Marseille final, I really felt something completely new in the group. I felt a desire, a determination, a confidence in our strengths and in the preparation that absentees like Victor (Vito), Tawera (Kerr-Barlow) and Kévin (Gourdon) provided. They transformed negative pressure and emotion into positive pressure and emotion. And then, on the pitch, there was Ronan O’Gara’s excellent tactical preparation against his best Leinster enemies. I was confident myself, which is special (smile).

Sounds crazy when you say it, but Ronan O’Gara is only 5e manager that you knew, after Jean-Pierre Elissalde, Serge Milhas, Patrice Collazo and Jono Gibbes. Does he follow their lineage?

Yes of course. He is in charge of making our professional team win. We can describe his approach as Anglo-Saxon, it is different. I can’t compare them to each other. What Ronan has in common with Patrice is that they instilled the desire to win and above all a contempt for defeat. Everyone is impregnated with it today.

Is the fact that the club’s first major trophy was won with a foreign coach a snub to the refusal shown by the first team to integrate Graham Mourie, the captain of the All Blacks, in 1977?

I cannot reduce the history of La Rochelle rugby to the Graham Mourie anecdote. We are in another time, in professional rugby. What we should all be proud of is having succeeded in being European champions while keeping our values, our cultural identity. We, Stade Rochelais, are European champions, which is really an exceptional achievement. And being at Stade Rochelais, in the culture of Stade Rochelais, doesn’t mean refusing a player who wants to come to us, however prestigious he may be. On the contrary, it means being open and wanting to help the club win while remaining ourselves.

Vincent Merling savors this title in the company of the supporters, whom he associates with this victory.


Vincent Merling savors this title in the company of the supporters, whom he associates with this victory.

XAVIER LEOTY

Pierre Venayre recalled after the coronation of Marseille that in 2011, people urged you to change your economic model, to appeal to a patron. Is this trophy a revenge for clubs based on a real economy?

This does not date from 2011 but from always. There were “it is better to stay in Pro D 2 because we will suffer, the club is not made to go to the Top 14”. And conversely, we also heard “we are not in the Top 14, we will never be a big club because we have no patron”. Even “the president refuses the arrival of a patron”. It has never been the case, no patron has come forward and somewhere, good for us. It allowed us to stay true to the strategy, to the conception we had of a club: sharing, community life, the involvement of everyone. Today, all the clubs that send us congratulations tell us “you were right, you have a perfect economic model. If you managed to be European champion with this model, why can’t we believe it too? “We opened our eyes, inspired a lot of clubs. In Lyon, and even in Toulouse, supporters came to thank me for rugby. It’s incredible ! But there is no revenge. It’s a lot of happiness and pride, with all the humility that this word does not imply, to have all together given the means to this club to win. I’m not saying that a club run by a patron is a bad thing, let’s be clear, I have no lesson to give in relation to that. But we had a conviction, we had been told for thirty years that we would never get there. We got there and today it opened up before us to look for other titles.

We have indeed seen you fraternize with supporters from Lyon and Toulouse since this European title…

(Laughs.) I recognize people who love rugby, this extraordinary discipline and sport… I love to commune with them, as with our supporters. We meet here and there rugby supporters that we love, rugby that we are passionate about and when I feel that, I like to go to them to share these moments of pride for our rugby. Because defending La Rochelle means defending our club but also a conception of rugby. I am proud to defend this conception which allows many clubs to look to the future positively.

In Marseille, Ronan O’Gara spoke of a starting point. Do you agree with him?

He speaks of a starting point for other conquests, other trophies. I completely agree with him. This is not the starting point for Stade Rochelais, which was founded 122 years ago, but in modern, professional rugby it is indeed a starting point for other great successes. I am firmly convinced of it, like him.

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