French rugby, where the locals rule

Date published: March 2 2014

Visiting sides have won only 12 percent of this season's Top 14 games, a ridiculous number compared to stats from other competitions.

It seems unexplainable, even humorous, but it's a fact. The Top 14 is a championship in which the locals rarely lose. So far this season, visiting sides have won only 12 percent of the games, a ridiculous number compared to the 33 percent in Super Rugby last year or the 44 percent in the Premiership this season.

The ex-international, Joe Worsley, currently Bordeaux Bègles' defense expert expressed his stupefaction at the start of the year.

“The French players have the exasperating habit of being willing to die during a home game and abandon away confrontations,” he commented.

This cultural incomprehension comes from the very creation of the game, back in the 19th century with the legendary game in which William Webb Ellis first picked the ball up. In the next 50 years rugby developed in the English universities, becoming an 'upper-class' sport.

Rugby spread initially in France through exposure to those universities, leading to the creation of the Stade Français in 1883. However the sport will spread mostly in the south west of the country, in universities in Bordeaux, then in the entire region. Out of the 23 clubs created between 1900 and 1905, 14 are located between Bordeaux and Perpignan. Whilst universities drove English rugby, French rugby enrooted itself in the rural south.

Indeed, French rugby became more a local matter symbolising this rural France, – des clochers – of hamlets, in which each was ready to fight for the honor of the village.

If the apparition of clubs in the north of France has diversified the French championship, the proximity of some clubs (Bayonne and Biarritz are just five kilometers apart) adds an additional pressure on the players to win in front of home fans. This has also influenced the trend of recruiting South Africans (10 percent of the players come from the Rainbow Nation), for whom perhaps this notion of derby matches is more pertinent than New-Zealanders, who sign shorter contracts.

Worsley was therefore spot on when he underlined this will to “die” at home. Although the sport has become professional, this ancestral determination remains. The examples of Grégory Le Corvec from Perpignan, or more recently the fidelity of Aurélien Rougerie to Clermont are remnants of the “rugby des clochers”.

Undoubtedly the supporters share this old-school attitude with their players. The French clubs probably benefit from the best supporters in the world game. Clermont is an excellent example. Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin, despite its relatively small capacity (18000 seats), has an average of 16700 supporters and is always full for the big games.

The fans are incredibly fervent: from the fanatic Toulonnais who completely drowned out the Saracens fans last year to the Clermontois, dubbed “the Yellow Army” by the Dublin press during last year's confrontation with Leinster. At home, in most of the Top 14 clubs, the supporters are even more impressive. In Toulon when the game is won, the fans explode, throwing their newspapers high, cheering for their players.

In Bayonne the fan clubs have a significant influence on the club's management. Back when Bayonne and Biarritz were in “peace talks” about a potential merger, the socios, members of the board, and the representative of the supporters declared their “incomprehension” and their “shock”. The project was abandoned in the following days. A powerful sign of the importance of the fans in the Bayonne players' daily life.

The fans can also be a source of intimidation for the visitors. The “pilou-pilou”, the emblematic roar” of the entire stadium at Toulon's Stade Felix Mayol has an undeniable impact. Bayonne also have their rituals with their fans sometimes treat their players with the magnificent Peña Baiona.

However sometimes the intimidation can be directly pointed at some players. Ask Rory Kockott who was loudly whistled, and jeered at every kick in Mayol for not joining Toulon next season. This behavior – widely shared with other clubs such as Perpignan or Grenoble – can be very disturbing, especially for the kickers.

The other victims of intimidation are the referees. Mourad Boudjellal, for example, was suspended 130 days for using obscene words to qualify Christophe Berdos' “arbitrage maison“, favoring the locals.

To all these sources of pressure, we have to add the fans that will try to “referee” from their seats. Of course the referees cannot be accused of dishonesty, however it is undeniable that with rugby being so complicated to referee, those 50-50 decisions will very often turn in favour of the locals as a result of the outside factors.

Recently ex-Bayonne coach Jean-Pierre Elissalde complained about the decision of Laurent Cardona to refuse Clermont a try in Grenoble for a minor obstruction of Fritz Lee, also punished by a severe yellow card. Like many, he believes the try would have been awarded in Clermont.

With these factors combined it becomes easier to win at home, if not an obligation. Clermont haven't lost since November 2009 at Marcel-Michelin and every extra match they win becomes an additional source of motivation. Losing a home game would by a massive blow to the morale of the team and the entire town.

However the causes of such records cannot be limited to home performances. The visitors do not always play the game, intentionally or not. The decision to cram three matches into one week earlier this season made it impossible for coaches to use their best players for every fixture. The example of Stade Français is appropriate with a heavy victory at home against Biarritz followed by a heavier defeat in Castres three days later.

In addition a new phenomenon has developed between the top guns of the championship (notably Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont). Forced by the many flaws of the international rugby calendar, they have made a rotation policy, resting some players for other more managable games. The example of last year's Toulouse-Toulon when Bernard Laporte had given a most of his first-choice players a holiday before the prestigious fixture, shows that these clubs spend little effort in winning away certain games. Why bother finishing first when there are no definite advantages over being second since the semi-finals are at neutral venues?

These “non-aggression pacts” are no longer limited to the big teams. Six years ago the visitors won 25 percent of their games, and the big teams would turn around 50 percent (30percent this year). With the homogenisation of the Top14, the “smaller teams” can also have a very competitive XV.

Last season, Grenoble assured their survival in the Top14 by the end of January thanks to 11 home victories. Oyonnax and Brive have only surprised once at home so far this term. However this strategy of 'bunkerisation' has its limits, as it leads to huge defeats away. Bayonne or Agen, for example, have not hesitated in the past years to send