European Rugby Cup: “Club of Five” La Rochelle

From the Pro D2 to the prestigious European Cup final on Saturday against Toulouse, they knew everything with La Rochelle: Sazi, Gordon, Otonio, Kefet and Bottia, or the equivalent maritime loyalty.

“Are there any specific ties between us? I don’t know, but it will be written forever that we have raised the club to the top 14,” said Kevin Gordon, in third grade. “When you look back a little, it reminds me of things. It’s good times, nice winks.”

Flashback in May 2014. Aside from a quick round-trip in the elite (2010-2011), Rochelle was in its eleventh season spent in Pro D2 when it appeared in the joining final against Agen, its third in seven years (after 2007 and 2010).

In her ranks is a straight column of XXL model, Uini Atonio, spotted three years ago by former manager Patrice Collazo during a tournament in VII in Hong Kong and “quickly adopted” at La Rochelle.

“A city is like where I grew up in New Zealand,” he says.

Behind him, Roman Sazi plays in the second row, Dutch international Zeno Kift and Kevin Gordon play in the third row, and the Fijian bulldozer, Livani Botia, is already wreaking havoc in the middle.

– Happy defection –

Nobody knows then that the next victory (31-22) will allow this historic stronghold of rugby on the Atlantic coast, without any real record except for the twice League Cup (an ephemeral competition at the start of the 21st century), into a fortress in the foreground, with a crowded stadium. Almost always and almost impervious “which puts us in more shots + reinforcement + from negative pressure,” according to Gordon.

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Atonio, New Zealand mainstay, during their 14 best home game against Bayonne, January 22, 2021 (AFP / ARCHIVES – XAVIER LEOTY)

“The club was in a state of instability and everything changed,” says Atonio. From infrastructure to internal organization, everything has progressed. When I think of this little stadium at Deflandre stadium that we trained behind ten years ago … I gave my chance here. And I didn’t see myself leaving as quickly as I arrived. It’s a personal choice, a matter of feeling. “

“Pro D2 has allowed us to shape ourselves really well,” continued Captain Sazzi, 34, grateful and proud to “have joined this great club,” his second after Montauban as he started as a professional in 2007.

Logical Sequence

The secret to this successful development, “is consistency,” summarizes Gordon, who became international in 2016. “We had people who stayed for a long time, projects that started to pay off, and we really stayed afloat and that’s what we were able to work quietly. With an incredible job, especially President Vincent Merling (in office since 1991), and all of this has allowed Ruschle to grow little by little and go through all stages. “

The Dutch third streak from La Rochelle, Zeno Kift (D), was dealt during one of the 14 best matches in Lyon, December 5, 2020 (AFP / Archive - Jean-Philippe Ksiazek)

The Dutch third streak from La Rochelle, Zeno Kift (D), was dealt during one of the 14 best matches in Lyon, December 5, 2020 (AFP / Archive – Jean-Philippe Ksiazek)

“The club and the players have developed, but also the solidarity of a strong core that has been created for a long time,” Kiefet, at the end of the decade in June, boasts, but will not play for another team in France. “All the extras, with the socially good people, rugby, it’s really good to live. The recruits add an outside perspective, it’s very positive.”

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After showing Muscle for the first time in 2017 (first in the regular season of the Top 14, defeated by Toulon in the semi-finals) and reaching the European Challenge Final two years later, today watch Rochelli top the standings. The European poster is only a logical continuation.

As he recently summed up the “incantation” of Botia in the newspaper Sud-West: “We want a headline!” “It’s difficult to achieve that but before I go I have to leave a memory for our fans.” Saturday, “Club of Five” has a date.

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