leaders Vincent Merling and Pierre Venayre explain the successes of Stade Rochelais

Behind the success of Stade Rochelais, double reigning European champion who is playing his Top 14 semi-final on Saturday, hides the duo Vincent Merling-Pierre Venayre. They told us about the progress of the club.

They are the two thinking heads of Stade Rochelais. Both former players at various times, Vincent Merling (73), president since 1991, and Pierre Venayre (44), general manager since 2008, now constitute the couple of the club’s executive who succeed in everything. “It’s an essential pair”, smiled the first. The duo made La Rochelle, which last rode in 2014, a major team in European rugby, going on to win two consecutive Champions Cups, the last of which on May 20 against Leinster.

On the eve of their Top 14 semi-final against Bordeaux-Bègles – the third in line – in San Sebastián (Spain), Saturday June 10, the duo, rather discreet, received us for 45 minutes at their hotel to retrace the progress of the club by caravel.

Franceinfo: sport: Stade Rochelais had never played in a semi-final before 2017. Since then, it has been preparing to play its fourth Top 14 half and has played in the last three Champions Cup finals. Are you getting used to it?

Pierre Venayre: (smile) We begin to normalize it, but not to get used to it. For us, there was something abnormal at the start that the club that we patiently developed in Pro D2 finally played the leading roles. It is also thanks to contributions from outside the club like Patrice Collazo [manager de 2011 à 2018] or Ronan O’Gara [manager depuis 2019]. Through their thirst for winning, they changed our vision of things. But we take care not to get used to it. Ask clubs that have experienced titles and then periods of scarcity… You have to take advantage.

Vincent Merling: Personally, I didn’t even think about it! The expression of not forgetting where you come from is very important. We are living something special. What I’m telling you, I’m sure any Rock supporter thinks too. In the past, it was common to say that it was better to be a big Pro D2 club than a small Top 14 club. If we had followed this reasoning, we might still be in Pro D2.

PV: In 2008, we did a survey of our subscribers, asking them if they wanted the club to go up. 75% of them preferred to stay in Pro D2!

How far have you come since?

VM: We are proud of it, because we hear from all sides that our club is an example of increasing sporting and economic power. Somewhere, we come from where other clubs are today and we open the door to them. Looking in the rear view mirror, we say to ourselves that it is not surprising that we are here, but it would be useless to be in the ephemeral.

“Perpetuating Stade Rochelais as a great club is a new but real ambition. The titles are the consequence of what we have done before”

Vincent Merling, president of Stade Rochelais

at franceinfo: sport

PV: We are really popping up in the media world, but you have to know that it didn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual build-up. In 2011, we created a “2015 project” to reach the top 10 of French rugby, then another in 2015, to play the leading roles. Today, the foundations are solid, but we are not in a state of euphoria.

When did the “click”, which made you realize that there was the potential to make La Rochelle one of Europe’s greats?

PV: The pivotal moment was when we went up in 2010. We went straight back down, and we then became aware of our limits in terms of budget, infrastructure, staff… It was very brutal. But at the same time, we perceived an exceptional enthusiasm for being in the Top 14. We were still thinking on the scale of the city, while our community went much further than La Rochelle.

We understood that by being a “territorial” club, we could fight against agglomerations like Toulouse. This is where we wrote our first development project. We came back down, but we worked to come back five years later, this time armed to stay in the Top 14.

The urban area of ​​La Rochelle has approximately 200,000 inhabitants. How did you manage to play the leading roles in a Top 14 that has become the prerogative of major cities?

VM: You should know that La Rochelle has long been away from rugby. If it was a disadvantage in the past, it is now a strength. Stade La Rochelais has become a brand, and today, we shine over a large region, from the north of Bordeaux to the south of Nantes. In this region there is not an abundance of high-level sport.

PV : This catchment area is 1h30 around the stadium, more than two million inhabitants and nearly 3,000 companies with more than 50 employees. And these are dynamic territories: the La Rochelle agglomeration, the Vendée, the Cholet area…

How did you manage to federate all this territory behind the club?

PV: The club has always made the choice not to spend all its resources on sports, but also to invest in infrastructure, so that the experience is attractive. This is a key point in the search for partners. Most of them come to see a sports show and live an experience, by inviting customers for example. Then, we were very serious in the way of working on the brand so that it had a territorial anchor. That, plus sports results, means that we have 800 partner companies, 10,000 subscribers and a long waiting list.

VM: We defend a certain idea of ​​rugby. The first strategic plan Pierre was talking about in 2011 was called “Growing Together”. We built this club with the values ​​of sharing, in which many companies identify.

PV: This is where Vincent was a visionary. He supported the club in difficult times and could have owned it with a symbolic euro, but he always preferred that it remained a collective project. Today, his company is a shareholder among others. It is not the project of a company or a man. This allows a strong membership, and everyone contributes by buying their place or by giving their time.

Your Marcel-Deflandre stadium (16,000 seats) was sold out during the last game of the regular season for the 80th time in a row. Isn’t there the potential to significantly expand the capacity?

PV: (in a firm tone) No. You should know that the average attendance of Top 14 is around 15,000 spectators, it remains limited. Maybe one day we will be at 20,000, but it is very important for us to have a stadium that is always full. This is what creates this feeling of fervor. We also hear that people want to come from all over France to experience a match, because it is something special.

It is sure that we could attract 40,000 people against Toulouse, but we know that currently, on certain posters, we are just filling up. A 25,000 seat stadium would be full three times in the season.

The Stade Rochelais public during the last home match against Stade Français, May 28, 2023. (XAVIER LEOTY / AFP)

Ticketing and hospitality revenue represents almost 70% of your budget. Were you afraid that the club would disappear when the matches were played behind closed doors because of the Covid-19?

VM: Yes, but it was the same problem for many clubs and companies. State support for sports clubs has been good. We see that in England, where whatever the cost did not exist, many clubs are in debt. And if we are there, it is also thanks to the very strong support of our partners and our subscribers. Together, we got through it and we resisted this difficult period. We are all rewarded, and that’s why we like to say that each member of Stade Rochelais has won the two European Cups.

PV: To scale, donations from subscribers and partners as well as the effort of players, who lowered their salaries by 20%, enabled us to save 10 million euros. [soit un tiers du budget actuel].

Rugby attracts the light, but we also saw Stade Rochelais take part in the women’s Tour de France last summer. In a multi-sport model not very widespread in France, the basketball club has also easily maintained itself in Pro B. Should we expect to see other “sections” of the Stade Rochelais?

PV: There will be no other sports, because our basic idea is that this diversification does not bring competition or financial costs to rugby. It is above all a brand project. The basketball club was dying, because in the shadow of rugby that attracted partners. There’s been a cry for help [en 2017]. And for cycling, it’s also a brand partnership, there’s no financial commitment. But it was a pride to see them on the Tour de France!

VM: In La Rochelle, basketball is the second most popular sport. Kid, I was going to see them play. Stade La Rochelais had a duty to come to the aid of this sport which federates a lot of passion among the supporters. It’s a great success, because basketball no longer grows in the shadow of rugby.

Vincent Merling, you recently celebrated your 73 years, including 56 at the club, as a player, manager and then president. You also hold the record for longevity among the current presidents of the Top 14. Do you ever think about the aftermath and your succession?

VM: It is essential that the institution be sustainable. The men pass, the players pass, but the institution must remain. We have an organization which means that people are not irreplaceable. When there was no Pierre, I felt the fragility of the institution. Today, I don’t have that feeling. But there is no deadline, I have no desire not to continue to live my passion. And it is because there is this couple Pierre Venayre-Vincent Merling that we are calm and that we are moving forward!

PV: Vincent is in good shape, and in our minds, we’re still here for at least 10 years!

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