The little club who are making a big noise
September 25, 2013
Oyonnax's Florian Denos celebrates their win over Clermont with Jean Francois Coux © Getty Images
There seems to be a variety of saloons open to rugby players these days. Gavin Henson has entered through the doors of the last-chance speakeasy on a number of occasions while others such as Dylan Hartley have recently spoken of being in the very same establishment. Others are flirting with the second-chance saloon and a large number of Oyonnax's players have enjoyed that bar's beverages.
About an hour in between Lyon and Geneva lies a small town with 22,000 residents, the second most populated town in the Ain region of the Rhone-Alpes. Oyonnax has previously been famous for its role in France's plastic industry and is referred to as being part of the 'Plastics Valley'.
But Oyonnax is now garnering a reputation for a completely different reason, their rugby team. This Saturday, Oyonnax host Toulon at their Stade Charles-Mathon home.
In captain Joe El-Abd's words, "it is David versus Goliath".
But do not be surprised if Oyonnax come out of the match with four or five points to their name. Clermont Auvergne, Castres and Biarritz have already travelled to the small town and come away with defeats to their name. Eyebrows have been collectively raised throughout Europe as people not only struggled to come to terms with the Top 14 newcomers but also with how to pronounce their name - for what it's worth, El-Abd says the 'x' is silent.
Last season, with former Bristol flanker El-Abd their skipper, Oyonnax stormed to the PRO D2 title having spent 10 years in France's second tier. They were ninth favourites heading into the season but found a free-flowing style of rugby which saw them win the league comfortably. Much praise was levelled at the feet of their Oyonnax boss Christophe Urios and El-Abd frequently lauded his coach during the interview - you felt it was more than mere posturing, there was real admiration.
Going into this campaign, no one gave Oyonnax a hope. While the likes of Racing Metro, Toulon and Stade Francais flexed their financial muscle during the off-season bringing in an array of talent, working class Oyonnax stayed in the shadows and brought in players full of hunger, an approach while served Grenoble well last term.
"They call us des Revanchards," El-Abd told ESPN. "So lots of players who come here haven't necessarily cracked it at other clubs and they come here looking to bounce back and prove a point. We're a little bit like that as our fullback Florian Denos, who was part of the France U21s when they won their competition, has played at Castres but didn't really get a look in there. And then someone like our fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta has been outstanding here after not getting much of a chance at Harlequins. There are a lot of players want to prove a point."
El-Abd is no stranger to Toulon having played for the Heineken Cup champions between 2009 and 2012. He was brought across by former Philippe Saint-Andre after the grizzled flanker spent six years at Bristol. It proved to be an incredible experience for El-Abd as he went from a team struggling in the Premiership to a side challenging for Europe's top honours.
But regardless of his switch back to a more unfancied side, it is a challenge he is relishing. "I was three years at Toulon and it was a different lifestyle with sun 24/7 and playing with the players there, it was another world.
Joe El-Abd alongside the Amlin Challenge Cup © Getty Images
"Up here, the town is equally as mad about rugby. We're working on a different level with regards to budget and the facilities but the values are the same. It's all rugby. It's been great and obviously everybody is loving the fact we've had a bit of success and we want it to continue."
Success will not come easy for Oyonnax. They have the lowest budget in the Top 14, roughly a third of Toulon's, but they are spending their meagre finances wisely. The local transnational business are showing interest in the rugby club and in the close-season, Oyonnax's ground went from, in El-Abd's words, one-and-a-half stands to three and a capacity of 11,400. This is a long-term project, El-Abd's charges are targeting more than scraping to survival.
"We believe in ourselves but we will do it our way. It's based on team spirit, human values and working for each other. Last year we were the highest scorers by a couple of hundred points. We like to attack and score points but the Top 14 is a different level. That's how we want to go about things, we are very organised."
El-Abd will miss Saturday's game and is yet to play this season due to injury, but he has played an integral off-field role in aiding the team's impressive start to the campaign. Losing to Stade Francais 16-15 at the weekend has ended their winning start to home matches in the Top 14 but you feel rather then wallowing in defeat, Oyonnax will have re-found the belief they can knock over Toulon at the weekend.
While Mourad Boudjellal's players are "the finished article", according to El-Abd, the desire of des Revanchards could see them spring a massive surprise; a surprise which would be so refreshing amid these boardroom battles regarding the future of the game.
When Conor O'Shea's Harlequins beat Toulouse in the pool stages of the under-fire Heineken Cup back in 2011, he said the win was due to "the size of the heart against the size of the wallet and the heart won today." If Oyonnax win on Saturday, then O'Shea's sentiments will describe their victory perfectly. But El-Abd will want more than mere scalps, he wants Oyonnax permanently on the map rather than just for one season.
"Money does talk but we're trying to make it not talk as much," El-Abd concluded. "We want to prove we aren't here just to stay in the league but merit being in there with the bigger guys."
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Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.