Stade Francais are easy on the eye
October 15, 2008
Stade Francais' garish new strip is not the only reason why this side are catching the eye © Stade Francais Paris
Stade Francais are looking really good. OK, that may be a matter of opinion but you can't argue with their impressive start to the season on the pitch even if their sartorial choices leave a lot to be desired.
The Paris-based club currently sit atop of the French Top 14 with seven wins from seven starts and they extended that run with an impressive victory over Ulster in their opening Heineken Cup clash at the weekend.
If their unbeaten start to the season hadn't been enough to draw your attention then the latest addition to the Stade Francais 'boutique' ensured even more column inches. The shirt depicts the face of Blanche de Castille, the wife of Louis VIII in an Andy Warhol-esque design and is the latest in a series of loud designs dating back to 2005.
The man behind this and Stade's return to the top of European rugby is club president Max Guazzini. The founder of French radio station NRJ, Guazzini arrived at the club in 1992 promising to, 'build a club for Paris, for the people, of which it can be proud'. And since that day he has been true to his word.
The shirts are just one of the many marketing ideas, conjured by Guazzini who deliberately tried to shake-up up the macho world of rugby with the pink designs. For those that like that sort of thing there is also the Dieux du Stade or 'Gods of the Stadium' calendar - described widely as 'homo-erotic' but again hugely popular.
But make no mistake, those pink shirts do not hide a soft under-belly and they can trade punches with the best of them - as anyone with access to YouTube will attest.
Guazzini's attempts to take the club to a wider audience has also seen him re-locate his side for key games - from their 12,000 seater Stade Jean Bouin home to the 80,000 capacity Stade de France. The result of this rental agreement? Record crowds for club games and a visual feast. He will attempt to generate another full house at France's national stadium when Harlequins visit Paris for a Heineken Cup clash on December 6.
You can imagine these ideas being the subject of derision at the formulation phase but Guazzini's bravery has paid dividends. Key to their success though was always going to be the performance of the team on the field.
The club broke a 90-year drought by capturing the Top 14 title in 1998 and triumphed four more times over the next ten years - their most recent victory coming in 2007. However European club rugby's biggest prize has so far evaded them.
They have come close to lifting the Heineken Cup on two occasions but Leicester Tigers edged them out in a memorable final in 2001 and French rivals Toulouse pipped them to the crown in 2005. But on present form they appear well-positioned to go one better this year.
Australian coach Ewen McKenzie took charge of the side in the summer and appointed former French internationals Christophe Dominici and Fabrice Landreau as his assistants. Together they preside over a strong multi-national squad that is well-equipped to compete for honours on all fronts.
"Last year was difficult for us,'' McKenzie commented recently reflecting on a disappointing season that saw them fail to challenge for silverware. "A lot of players had a long season because of the World Cup and the players struggled towards the end. I have been lucky in that the players are fresh this season, they are keen to go and there are no distractions in front of them. I have arrived at the right time."
Captain and lock David Auradou leads a squad that features a host of international names including the likes of Italy's Sergio Parisse and Mauro Bergamasco, Frenchman Lionel Beauxis, Scotland's Simon Taylor, Argentina's Ignacio Corleto and latest high-profile addition - former NRL star Mark Gasnier.
However it is another international in their ranks that commands the most attention - the gifted Pumas star Juan Martin Hernandez - arguably the most-gifted player plying his trade in Europe.
The talented fly-half produced a man of the match performance in the victory at Ravenhill - their first - and has gained rave reviews throughout Stade's strong start to the season.
"I know everyone is talking about the arrival of Dan Carter - I know him well and he is one of the great players - but for me, Hernandez is up there on the same shelf,'' said the Australian who has hailed him as the 'complete player' by McKenzie. It is his talent for game-breaking that marks him out and his ability to conjure drop goals from open play - a ploy many French clubs appear almost addicted to this season.
Expect more of the same from Stade this season, who will of course taste defeat at some point this season but it will surely take a committed performance to break the stride of this colourful giant of the game.
"We still have 10 very good players not playing," warned McKenzie. "We are still being competitive. I know that in the new year we will get four or five experienced players back and that will give us another injection.''
Watch out Europe - you have been warned.