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

At our club we have seen extreme joys, with generations of players who have saved him from relegation, who have taken him 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 and shared by the whole wonderful family of our Stade Rochelais Port from La Rochelle.


The President of the Stade Rochelais, who has directed his rise to power since 1991, felt great joy and 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 winning the Champions Cup mean to you?

It is strange. Honestly, the goal of all clubs is to lift a trophy, but for us, becoming European champions was a completely new goal. 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 made it. So the emotion is extreme, but also internal. That doesn’t express itself, it’s a great inner happiness, a great pride.

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

Things have changed in recent years, the club has grown. And it is true that it has become an achievable goal. I think very strongly of the generations of players that have allowed the stadium to remain at the highest level and the current generation that rewards an entire club with the European Champions’ trophy. I’m sure we’ll be French champions tomorrow because the club has changed and we have different goals today. I still remember what we were told not too long ago: “We’d probably better stay in Pro D 2 because the top 14 is impossible, we’ll suffer”. Thankfully we refused to listen. We had ambitions to rise. We’ve stabilized in the top 14, at the top of the table, with the intention – in the humility we know – of winning titles. The first is that of the European Champion, which is exceptional for us. It’s pretty extraordinary.

The former 3rd line has always maintained a privileged bond with the players who have found success at the club, such as Wiaan Liebenberg, congratulating here in Lens after the Champions Cup semi-finals.


The former 3rd line has always had a special bond with the players who have been successful at the club, as congratulated by Wiaan Liebenberg, here in Lens after the Champions Cup semifinals.

XAVIER LEOTY

Will this generation remain special for you in 2022?

It’s a tough question because I had so many emotional connections with all the players, whoever they were… it’s part of my management, I have very close ties with them, I’ve had wonderful times with previous generations. Today, from the bottom of my heart, I thank this generation who has finally rewarded all the players, leaders, partners and supporters who have followed each other to grow our club. I have “prestigious” recognition. It’s so prestigious what they’ve done.

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 live forever in the memory of all the players who conquered it and our audience, this family from the Stade Rochelais who accompanied them to bring him back to La Rochelle and who celebrated what he 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 that exceptional crowd, those loyal partners, those permanent members of the stadium and its managers and shareholders that have made them European champions. Together we won.

How did you experience the elimination in the top 14 play-off in Toulouse?

For me we didn’t lose in Toulouse, we lost the opportunity to get the double during the regular season, especially in Biarritz where we advanced. As in the previous season, we were not able to qualify directly for the semi-finals due to defeats. The staff could therefore not muster the physical and necessary freshness to be there at the right time. In Toulouse, I felt that that freshness suddenly disappeared, which punished us. Running for two titles is running for two championships at the same time, it’s complicated. It’s an education. This year we have learned to win but also to prepare as efficiently as possible for the end of the season and avoid spoiling during the year.

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


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

XAVIER LEOTY

Learning to win, does it really matter?

Yes. For a few years with Pierre (Venayre, the general manager, ed.) we wanted to change things, to believe in ourselves and in our ability to win. In that final in Marseille, I really felt something completely new in the group. I felt a desire, a determination, a confidence in our powers and in the preparation that absentees like Victor (Vito), Tawera (Kerr-Barlow) and Kévin (Gourdon) were making. They turned negative pressure and emotions into positive pressure and emotions. And then there was Ronan O’Gara’s superb on-pitch tactical preparation against his top Leinster foes. I was confident myself, which is something special (smiles).

Sounds crazy when you say it, but Ronan O’Gara is only 5e Manager You Know, after Jean-Pierre Elissalde, Serge Milhas, Patrice Collazo and Jono Gibbes. Does he follow her line?

Yes of course. He is responsible for our professional team to win. We can call his approach Anglo-Saxon, he is different. I can’t compare them to each other. What Ronan has in common with Patrice is that they instilled a desire to win and, more importantly, a disdain for losing. Everyone is impregnated with it today.

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

I cannot reduce the history of La Rochelle rugby to Graham Mourie’s anecdote. We are in a different time, in professional rugby. What we should all be proud of is that we managed to be European champions while preserving our values, our cultural identity. We Stade Rochelais are European champions, that really is an exceptional achievement. And being at the Stade Rochelais, in the culture of the Stade Rochelais, does not mean turning down a player who wants to come to us, no matter how prestigious. On the contrary, it means being open and wanting to help the club win while remaining ourselves.

Vincent Merling is enjoying this title in the company of the supporters he associates with this win.


Vincent Merling is enjoying this title in the company of the supporters he associates with this win.

XAVIER LEOTY

After the Marseille coronation, Pierre Venayre recalled that in 2011, people were urging you to change your economic model and turn to a benefactor. Is this trophy a revenge for clubs built on a real economy?

This is not from 2011, but from always. “It’s better to stay in Pro D 2 because we will suffer, the club is not made to be in the top 14.” And vice versa, we also heard “we’re not in the top 14, we’ll never become a big club because we don’t have a sponsor”. 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. This allowed us to stay true to the strategy, to the idea we had of a club: sharing, community life, everyone’s commitment. Today, all the clubs that congratulated us tell us: ‘You were right, you have a perfect economic model. If you managed to become European Champion with this model, why can’t we believe it too? “We opened our eyes and inspired many clubs. In Lyon and even in Toulouse, fans came to thank me for rugby. It’s incredible ! But there is no revenge. It’s a lot of luck and pride, with all the humility that word doesn’t imply, that all together have given this club the means to win. I’m not saying a patron run club is a bad thing, let’s be clear I have no lesson to teach on that. But we had a belief, we were told for thirty years, that we would never get there. We got there and today it opened in front of us to look for other titles.

We’ve actually seen you fraternize with fans from Lyon and Toulouse since that European title…

(Laughs) I recognize people who love rugby, this extraordinary discipline and sport… I like communicating with them, just like with our fans. We do meet rugby fans here and there that we love, rugby that we are passionate about and when I feel that I love going to them to share those moments of pride for our rugby. Because defending La Rochelle means defending our club, but also an idea of ​​rugby. I am proud to defend this concept, which makes many clubs look positively to the future.

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 totally agree with him. This is not the starting point for the Stade Rochelais, founded 122 years ago, but it is a starting point for further great successes in modern, professional rugby. I’m a firm believer, just like him.

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