One of the most compelling features of the Heineken Cup is that the clubs, more so than international teams, express local characteristics by the way in which they approach the game. This can manifest itself through the team, the supporters or the trappings which surround professional sports outfits.
The fiery passion to be found at Stradey Park and Thomond Park reflects the sheer love of the game in the two areas. The styles of rugby played by the occupants of the two grounds however differs significantly, the abrasiveness of Munster’s approach countered by the exuberance of Llanelli’s. It reflects the way they like their sports teams to be. Similarly the conservative efficiency of Leicester could be seen as a reflection of the character of Middle England.
Nowhere is this more obvious than at Stade Francais. The traditional joie de vivre associated with French rugby teams has not been much in evidence of late, with Bernard Laporte’s conservative approach being mirrored to some extent by Biarritz, and with Toulouse not quite the force of old. Stade however refuse to be influenced by this and Parisian rugby continues to be characterised by an extravagance which reflects the typical perception of their home city.
Yet the arrogance and swagger which pervades through the club cannot be seen in any way as offensive. They may be one of the finest and most professional teams in Europe, but the Corinthian spirit of amateurism still courses through the veins of the club and they keep the flame of flamboyance in French rugby burning brightly. Their predecessors as the leading team in Paris, Racing Club, personified this even more and their influence over their local rivals is obvious in the activities of Stade’s marketing department.
A love of all things pink and flowery is a welcome antidote to the often overly serious and macho world of professional rugby and the sea of pink flags in the crowd at their home games is an expression of this. The President, Max Guazzini clearly revels in his use of the provocative but much of it is done with tongue firmly in cheek and the success of it can be seen in the fact that they are able to attract 80,000 people to their bigger home games.
Racing Club had a generation of players in the 1980s who were not only hugely talented but wanted to inject fun into the game in a city in which rugby was largely dormant. The likes of Jean-Baptiste Lafond and Franck Mesnel brought success to the club by winning the French championship but also drew attention with some bizarre but rather amusing antics in major matches. This included the wearing of white Bermuda shorts in the semi final of the French championship and the wearing of pink bow ties in the final.
On occasion, they also ran out wearing old-school blazers, wore fake bald heads and black face paint, drank champagne at half time, entered Bezier’s stadium on bicycles, and wore red, white and blue striped sans-culottes in tribute to the revolutionaries of the Bastille. The individuals behind these antics were known as the ‘Showbiz 5’ and went on to found the Eden Park clothing band with its logo of a pink bow tie. Guazzini’s Stade Francais attempt to keep this flame burning, albeit in the more restrictive world of professional sport.
Provocative it may be but I hope there is always a place for this sort of thing in rugby. It may have become big business in the decade since the advent of professionalism, but 100 years of amateurism has meant that fun and camaraderie are sewn into the fabric of the game. Stade are doing as much as anyone to maintain this. This is not necessarily by their playing style – they are enjoyable to watch but first and foremost their lifeblood is winning. It is in the way the club expresses itself. They have never won the Heineken Cup and may not his year given their propensity for travel sickness but, as they encompass all the elements we love about French rugby, the competition is enriched immeasurably by their presence. I for one hope that they keep it pink.
By Stuart Peel