Enjoying a trip down memory lane
March 1, 2007
To visit the Stade Yves-du-Manoir in Colombes, in Paris's outer suburbs, is to feel like a rugby archaeologist. Huw Richards reports from a famous old ground on the continent
Among British fans first hand memories of the stadium, generally known as the Stade Colombes when it was France's home from 1914 to 1972, are now the preserve of those in later middle age.
For this of us a little younger there is the recall from childhood of radio commentaries accompanied by the noise peculiar to the ground, a metallic echo as sound swirled around the grandstands before transmission along with Alun Williams' ever-excited descriptions, or of grainy television pictures of those grandstands and the block of flats that loomed over one end.
It was here that the French game grew from stumbling infancy to maturity - the ground associated with the tragic du Manoir, the charismatic Jean Prat and the mesmeric Boniface brothers. It was here that France lost the last ever Olympic final to the United States in 1924, claimed its first championship with victory over Wales in 1959 and, on its last international day in 1972, scored more points against England, 37, than anyone managed until Ireland's 43 last Saturday.
It is much changed, but remnants of the old ground are still visible. The grandstand on one side has vanished, giving way to a mesh fence and a pathway towards the sports fields occupying the rest of a tidy-sized site. But a substantial stand, along with remnants of the terraces at each corner, remains on the other. That block of flats still rises behind one goal-line.
The stadium's tenants are as evocative as those physical remnants of a bygone age - Racing Club de France and their Cambridge blue and white-hooped shirts. Or to be more precise, Racing Metro 92. The number is not, as with many European sports club, a date of foundation, but the post code associated with their home department, the Paris-fringing Hauts de Seine. It is, though, a happy coincidence that they should have won the first ever French championship in 1892.
Their last title was as recently as 1990 with a team memorable for its satirising of popular notions of Parisian style - the pink bow-tied, gold-booted, champagne-sipping le showbizz of Franck Mesnel and Co. A banner advertising Mesnel's Eden Park clothing empire is a reminder of what all that led to.
There is still a touch of showbizz about Racing in the shape of a small riverboat band offering impromptu commentary on events - mixing bouncy tunes with rasping raspberries whenever opponents Oyonnax or the referee offends them. A crowd of just under 1,000 emphasises, though, the struggle that Racing have to attract crowds to their Division Pro-2 matches at Colombes.
There is talk of money coming into the club and of big-name incomers during the summer, the aim to haul Racing out of the Second Division place they have occupied since the First Division was cut from 40 to 20 clubs in 1996.
The impact of this on current players whose jobs are jeopardised is unclear. Nor do coaches Didier Camberabero and Philippe Benetton seem to be the best of friends.
The crowd, concentrated in the centre blocks of the single stand, applaud Racing's bright opening vigorously and respond to the jaunty promptings of the band. It is, though, rapidly clear that Oyonnax, still cherishing marginal hopes of an end of season promotion playoff place, are the more solidly competent team and it is no great surprise when omnipresent flanker and skipper Yann Labrit plunges over after 16 minutes.
Racing's forwards then go in for a spot of Grewcock-style self-destruction and there are two of them stewing in the sin-bin 17 minutes later when second row Remi Delavallee crosses after a ferocious drive from giant prop Arnaud Tchougong and outside-half Eric Catinot, son and namesake of Oyonnax's Bourgoin-bound coach, adds the conversion.
For all their positive intent and free-running traditions, the rolling maul appears Racing's best phase of the game. Just before half-time they roll purposefully deep into the Oyonnax 22 only for the referee to rule against them when the maul goes down. The reaction from the crowd - and the band - shows that, however genially sporting, Racing's fans when provoked can express derision and anger in the best French tradition.
And maybe it served to liven their team up. Within 30 seconds of the restart, Racing scored. Wing Florian Briezoianu broke down the left and skipper Mike Carroll was perfectly placed to score. But Racing failed to capitalise on their period of ascendancy - wastefulness epitomised by the butchering of two penalty chances. From the first, after 56 minutes, the ensuing line-out was stolen by Oyonnax.
Ten minutes later Catinot extended the visitors lead to 15-5.
Racing's second giant gaffe came a few minutes later as a penalty aimed towards the cornerflag was overstruck and flew dead. The rolling maul reasserted itself late on, with former France number
They, and their ground, for which ambitious redevelopment plans are proclaimed on the club website, have the air of waiting for something to happen. Oyonnax's ecstatic celebrations, grouped in the centre of the pitch after no side was blown, had the air of a team that still thinks it has possibilities this year - seven points down on Lyon, but with most of their remaining nine matches against teams further down the table.