Rebuilding Perpignan - 103 years and out
May 6, 2014
Relegation hits home for Alasdair Strokosch and Watisoni Votu © Getty Images
It was a fantastic innings but that will be of no consolation to Perpignan fans as they come to terms with seeing their side relegated from the French top flight for the first time in their history.
In the end the axe finally fell at the Stade Marcel Michelin, Clermont Auvergne's impenetrable fortress which trembled but did not crumble.
Immediately after the final whistle the Catalan club's president François Rivière made his intentions clear, promising ProD2's biggest budget next season, somewhere in the region of €10M. He'll be spending this week trying to convince those players who haven't already packed their bags, to stay on at Aimé Giral.
The problem is, the big spenders in the Top 14 have kept a close eye on Perpignan's struggles in the last few weeks and have already picked off some of the biggest talents. French international pair Guilhem Guirado and Romain Taofifenua will be in Toulon next season, Camille Lopez is set to join Sebastien Vahaamahina in Clermont while winger Sofiane Guitoune is apparently on his way to Bordeaux taking the younger Taofifenua brother, Sebastien, in his suitcase.
Luke Charteris is one of a string of experienced internationals who will surely be headed to pastures new but Rivière revealed that he is eager keep hold of James Hook. That seems optimistic - the Welshman has no shortage of offers elsewhere and would be surely giving up on his World Cup dream to stay with the club, although having missed an easy penalty which would in the end have kept them up, Hook may feel indebted to the Catalans.
The other player Rivière is desperate to keep is skipper Bertrand Guiry. A promising flanker who was named club captain heading into the new season and primed for a breakout year, the 25-year-old suffered a torn calf muscle and has spent most of the year on the sidelines. So without the so-called stars who failed to keep them up, how can Perpignan rebuild and match Brive who last year became only the second side in nearly a decade to bounce straight back into the Top 14 at the first attempt?
Well they could do worse than follow Brive's lead by going back to basics with a powerful pack and work from there. In their pomp, Perpignan were always known for being one of the fiercest scrummaging outfits in France, led by Nicolas Mas, and a trip to Aimé Giral was a battle as much as it was a rugby match.
The French international tighthead has since moved on to Montpellier but a fearsome set of forwards will be vital against some of the experienced campaigners in the French second flight. That will involve considerable investment with both tight-heads Giorgi Jgenti and Paulica Ion also on their way out.
Rivière has promised to splash the cash - never a guarantee of success - and he'd be well advised to start up front. ProD2 requires more than a powerful pack and an accurate kicker these days, but it's a good place to start. A big ball carrier in the back row would also be very welcome. Henry Tuilagi has never truly been replaced and the signing of Saikusa Matadigo looks set to fall through after relegation.
But more important will be to rebuild the spirit of the club, which has been clearly lacking since things started to go wrong this season. That will come by trusting some of the next generation because for all of Perpignan's struggles in the Top 14, their Espoirs finished top of the table eventually falling at the semi-final stages in the play-offs.
While they might not all be ready for the battleground of ProD2, players like scrum-half Tom Ecochard, prop Jean-Baptiste Custoja and back-rowers Karl Chateau and Nicolas Rabat showed enough to earn more game time with the senior side, having all featured in two of the club's best away showings this term, narrow losses to Toulon and Racing.
When Perpignan won the Top 14 title, just five years ago, the team was built on a strong Catalan foundation, with 11 French starters, including academy graduates such as Mas, Olivier Olibeau, Jean-Pierre Perez and David Marty. The latter two should remain at the club, and while their performances on the pitch are not what they were, the team cannot afford to lose any more leadership.
And when it comes to leadership, the biggest issue to be resolved is with the coaching staff. Marc Delpoux arrived from Bordeaux two years ago with a glittering reputation, but has spent the season with the sword of Damocles hanging above his head.
In hindsight it appears that Vincent Etcheto, Delpoux's former right-hand man, was the key ingredient of that Bordeaux staff, while the current Perpignan manager has looked more and more helpless on the sidelines. Wednesday should see him finally put out of his misery, something that almost certainly would have come earlier but for an ill-advised contract extension back in November.
Current backs coach Patrick Arlettaz will stay on, joined by Auch coach Gregory Patat who will look after the forwards. The bigger question is who will be the man in charge, with both Lièvremont brothers mooted as possibilities. The more likely candidate would appear to be Michel Konieck, a former Perpignan hooker with a volatile character, who is currently in charge of the Espoirs.
Although he remains inexperienced at this level, he would surely bring some of the fire that has been lacking as Perpignan have plumbed the depths this year, while also giving the promising youngsters a shot. That alone won't be enough to turn things around at Aimé Giral, the sight of Colomiers, Bourgoin, Béziers and Dax is warning enough that being a grand old name of French rugby is no guarantee of success.
But if Rivière can find the right man to take advantage of a successful academy mixed with a sprinkling of experienced leaders, there is some hope that we haven't seen the last of the Sang et Or in the Top 14.
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