Breaking down a bombshell: Racing 92's merger with Stade Francais


In March 1892 a referee called Pierre de Coubertin -- he of Olympic fame -- blew the whistle to kick off the first ever French Championship final. It was contested between Racing Club and Stade Francais -- a momentous occasion in the history of French club rugby.

Racing won a feisty occasion 4-3 and, after the trophy named in honour of its designer Charles Brennus had been handed over to the champions, the two clubs went their separate ways.

One hundred and twenty-five years later [almost to the day] the clubs came together again. This time neither to play the game nor, as it happens, with the intention of ever again going their separate ways. On Monday, at just after 4 p.m. Paris time, the two clubs' presidents, Jacky Lorenzetti and Thomas Savare, came together to confirm a remarkable merger.

The reigning French champions Racing 92 [as they are now known] and their predecessors as holders of the Bouclier de Brennus, Stade Francais, are to merge to form a single club.

It is a bombshell that has left a crater the length and breadth of the Stade Jean Bouin. Shockwaves that will continue to reverberate across the European rugby map.

So much fall-out, so many implications. The challenge is knowing quite where to start.

So how about dealing straight up with the most pressing issue: that of the integrity of the game and the looming threat of a conflict of interests. As things stand, Racing 92 are seventh and Stade Francais 12th in the Top 14. The latter appear safe from the threat of relegation but Racing almost certainly need results to "go their way" if they are to secure a playoff spot and qualification for the Champions Cup.

An away win in the last six games of the league phase could be priceless. Racing's final away game is in the penultimate round when they travel to? You've guessed it, Stade Francais.

So what about the future of the staff? This is where we need a specialist in French employment law to assist as the implications are far-reaching and tied up in Law. However, it stands to reason that with salary caps and budgets to live by, many employees of both clubs will find themselves heading off with redundancy cheques and / or contracts paid out.

The same goes for those who have agreed to join either of the two merging entities such as Toulouse prop Census Johnston.

On the flip side, Racing runaway Johan Goosen may finally have been handed his golden ticket to return to professional rugby.

Midi Olympique reported on Monday morning that the 2016 Top 14 player of the year had finally accepted his only remaining route back to rugby was to return, tail between legs, to Racing who had threatened to serve legal papers on him if he didn't fulfil the remainder of his contract. Monday's announcement is sure to be exploited on Goosen's behalf by a resourceful lawyer.

So what about the other crucial stuff like the club's new name, where they'll play and who will be the main faces in charge?

Suffice it to say, there will be winners and losers in just about every respect with my hunch that this merger will look rather more like a Racing takeover once it is all done.

That, at least, appears to be the view of several members of the Stade Francais squad who have taken to social media to express their outrage. They may just be angry, knee-jerk reactions but a Stade players' strike has even been mooted.

What of the new name? There are no serious leads yet. Mergers in France have a horrible habit of throwing up some real shockers. In a previous incarnation the club now known as Bordeaux-Begles was Union Stade Bordelais C.A.Bordeaux-Bègles Gironde.

Thankfully, lessons have been learnt since those dark days yet good old-fashioned Paris RFC might be just a little too brief to cut the Dijon mustard. Perhaps Racing Paris is a more likely moniker?

The presidency is likely to be a bit of a job share -- at least for now -- with Lorenzetti and Savare sat arm-in-arm in the main tribune and, according to Monday's joint press conference, the pair shall alternate job titles on a biennial basis.

Going forward, I'd suggest Lorenzetti's financial muscle, ambition, rugby know-how and durability will most likely see him prevail.

Savare's love with the sport has been on the wane in recent months and it's thought he initiated talks over the merger last summer. Given he's more driven by the love of money than rugby it's hard to believe he will still be there in two years' time

One certainty is that the deux Laurents -- Labit and Travers -- of Racing 92 will continue in their roles and take charge of the new club's first team which, like the academy, will be based at Racing's futuristic Plessis-Robinson training base.

The only alteration there is likely to involve an additional padlock on Lorenzetti's wine cellar. Yes, it does have one.

"It is an uncomfortable truth that despite their substantial budgets the clubs are just about the worst supported in the Top 14." Martin Gillingham

Where will they play? The plan is for the new club's first few home games of next season to be played at Stade Francais's recently-reconstructed Jean Bouin. Then in October when the ribbons are cut on Lorenzetti's new Arena 92, home games will be alternated between the two. Frankly, that sounds more like a fudged compromise than a long-term solution.

Even so, whichever venue proves to be new entity's long-term home the greatest challenge will be filling it because despite the predictably hostile and vociferous reaction from fans of both clubs not nearly enough of them go to watch either side.

A conveniently-plucked figure of 12,000 watched Racing lose to league leaders La Rochelle at Colombes on Saturday while just 9,424 were at Jean Bouin the previous weekend to see Stade Francais beat Bordeaux-Begles.

It is an uncomfortable truth that despite their substantial budgets the clubs are just about the worst supported in the Top 14.

The other consequence of the merger is a challenge for the Top 14's organisers, the LNR, and how to resolve the make-up of next season's Top 14.

The merger will create an additional spot in the league if the LNR observe their current regulations and relegate this season's 13th and 14th clubs and replace them with the Pro D2 champions and the winner of the Pro D2 playoffs. Those playoffs involve the sides that finished second, third, fourth and fifth.

The LNR would appear to have two plausible options which, as things stand, will throw a lifeline to Bernard Jackman's Grenoble. The first is that the LNR will simply allow the Top 14's 13th team to stay up while, the second, is that the 13th team will meet the loser of the Pro D2 playoff final in a repechage match.

All in all, it promises to be an interesting conclusion to the French season.