The LMR: When Rugby gets chauvinistic

The Lille Métropole Rugby club, in the North of France, is facing a difficult situation since this summer. After having won for the first time the highest French amateur championship, the Rugby Federation rejected their rise to the professional level. Since then, the club is facing many obstacles.

December 29th 2015, 11 a.m. It’s the winter break for rugby players of Fédérale 1 (a French rugby union club competition, highest level of amateur rugby). Clubs are halfway between the two stages of the 2015-2016 season. In pool phase, they have already played all their first matches and they will start the return matches in mid January.

Lille Métropole Rugby (North) will begin the second part of the season outside, against Rouen (Normandy), on January 17th. The club is the second team of pool 2, one point behind the Rugby Club Vannes (Brittany). The players will resume training on January 4th, after a “well-deserved” break, in David Bolgashvili (LMR’s first-team coach) words. The Stadium Nord is empty, closed for winter break. A delivery truck is parked in front of the stairs that lead to the terraces to unload what seem to be vending machines. But the field is closed, such as the big top that usually welcomes supporters, and the ticket offices at the entry have lowered their awning… Only some sorts of sheds transformed into an office are lighted in front of the stadium.

David Bolgashvili is here, in front of the office. We have an appointment this morning. Called “Bolga”, thirty-five-year-old Georgian, ex-player of the Georgia national rugby team, he arrived in 1999 at the LMR to take the third line position (one of the eight forwards) in the first team. He started to coach the reserve team – or team B – of the club in 2012. And last January, he replaced the first-team coach Richard Crespy, after a bad start during the 2014-2015 season, and because of disagreements between Crespy and the former president Jean-Paul Luciani. He led Lille as far as semi-finals last May. A semi-final won by the LMR, on May 31st. Lille defeated Nevers (Burgundy), the firsts of pool 1 last season, ahead of Lille. They at last snatched the rise to Pro D2 (the second professional championship after Top14). For five years, they wore themselves into doing the impossible. After having lost the semi-final three years in a row, they could be up there with the leaders.

It would have been the first northern club – not counting Paris – to get into the French professional championship. But, after the sporting defeats of the previous years, an administrative obstacle prevented the club from rising this season. Last June, the DNACG (the committee that controls the professional and amateur rugby clubs affiliated to the French Rugby Federation and the National Rugby League) rejected the rise of the LMR to Pro D2. The reason for this refusal? The debt of the club in the last few years: 800 000 euros debt between 2011 and 2014, twice as much as what the management of the LMR had declared in 2014. The DNACG realized the extent of the deficit after an audit in June 2015. Lille appealed twice to different courts of arbitration for sports, this summer. But none of the two authorities agreed that the LMR was right, preventing the club from rising for good this season. They had to remain in Fédérale 1. On ten high-level players recruited last season in view of Pro D2, eight left the club during the summer because Lille no longer could honour the contracts, or simply because the players did not want to play in Fédérale 1. Five others, who played at the LMR for a long time, also decided to leave this summer. But, more than the players, the sponsors left the club too…

When I asked David Bolgashvili how he learned that the LMR would not rise, he lowered his eyes and said laconically: « From the newspapers »…  « We knew that we had financial difficulties last season. But we thought that with our victory in semi-final and the funds rose at the last minute by the managerial staff*, the DNACG would let us go. It was sure for us. We were already preparing the Pro D2. » – *Last June, the LMR succeeded to raise 100 000 euros from donors to prove that they could balance again their budget. – Some supporters of the club accused the National Rugby League (LNR) of not wanting any club from the North in the professional championships (French rugby is deeply settled in the South of France). David Bolgashvili can’t say what is the real reason of their rejection, but he finds this obstinate refusal from three authorities incomprehensible. « It’s a shame because we had a beautiful team and we could have remained in Pro D2 after this season », which is uncommon for a newcomer.

Yann Defives, the sporting director of the LMR, agrees: « Last season, we had set everything up to rise, sportingly speaking. And against all expectations, we won. I knew it since November last year. I told everybody in the club that we were going to rise. And what makes me mad, is that with the team we had last season, we would have been between the sixth and the tenth place in Pro D2 (on sixteen clubs) right now. »

This tall strapping man with grey hair tells the story of this-summer imbroglio with the laughing eyes of a kid. Before he arrived, on January 2nd, for our meeting in a tennis club – where he usually plays – people informed me that he was an « old devil ». But the refusal of the DNACG was hard to take for Yann. « On the psychological level, what we lived on May 31st was fantastic, and I wish every sportsman to live this once in his career. Further, it was the first time that a club from the North rose in this division. After, it has been a psychological chaos all summer long. We have been rejected one time, two times, three times… It was awful. I took ten days away from work this summer because I was about to go over the edge and attack someone at the club. »

The whole club was down. It pushed the players to the limit while they were supposed to get back to work for the new season in Fédérale 1. Some of them made a video clip to explain their situation in an indebted club.

David Bolgashvili worked hard to motivate the team. « The first months have been very difficult for the team and for me. We were all prostrated because we were supposed to integrate the professional league and finally we stayed in a semi-professional championship. Even today, it is still complicated, our future is not safe. »

The then president of the LMR, Jean-Paul Luciani, was confronted with a financial hole and tensions within the club, so he decided to give his position up a year and a half after he took office (during summer 2014). On December 22nd 2015, the LMR’s General Assembly elected Jonathan Stauber, manager of Imabiotech (a company of medical imaging), stockholder of the club and former player of the LMR, as the new president. At the time when he was playing, he was David Bolgashvili and Yann Defives’s teammate. Stauber heads a group of regional entrepreneurs which weighs 400 000 euros, and he intends to help the club get sound finances back.

The LMR also declared that the LNR had not selected the club among the eight candidates for Pro D2 this season. This new rejection is linked to “the lateness accumulated since several seasons in the administrative and financial structuration” of the club, in the League words. Yann Defives was not surprised by this decision. He checked himself that the club was respecting all the sporting clauses of the LNR’s specification for Pro D2. « We set everything up to respect the clauses before November 2015 [the deadline to apply]. Sportingly speaking, we could rise to Pro D2. But financially speaking and on the administrative level, I suspected that we still had things to solve. »

Lille’s priority is to be able to pay its employees, especially its players, and to convince the DNACG that the finances of the club can be straightened out. On January 15th, Jonathan Stauber and his staff presented a new budget and a project to restructure the club to the sporting authority. The DNACG could have taken disciplinary action against Lille, and the club could have been relegated in Fédérale 3, or even have filed for bankruptcy. But the new president convinced the jury, and the club can continue its season in Fédérale 1, without any relegation or any fine.

For Yann Defives, Jonathan Stauber is able to restructure the club:  » It’s going to be very complicated. The extent of the deficit is such that nothing is sure. But Jonathan is a businessman, someone who makes plans. After his studies of biochemistry, he created his company and raised ten million euros. You don’t raise ten million euros just like that. He’s set up in Lille and in Boston (US). The LMR needed someone like him. »

January 24th 2016. Lille won against Bergerac (Aquitaine) 67-14 and stay second of pool 2, five points behind the leader, Vannes. They are still part of the top competitors of Federale 1 and could take part in the playoffs this year, even if Pro D2 stays out-of-reach. For David Bolgashvili, it is only a matter of time: « We have to keep going. And if everything goes well, I hope that we will rise to Pro D2 in two or three years. » The club won’t give up, that’s what makes the LMR unique, according to Yann Defives. « When I came back from my days off. We talked with the players and the staff and we told ourselves that the only way to exist was to keep training and playing. We had this strength. If it happened somewhere else, the club would have collapsed. In Lille, there is a true solidarity, an incredible resilience. »

Hope is certainly what makes the LMR unique. « There will be a club in Pro D2 in Lille, that’s obvious, according to Yann Defives. But many things have to change. We already have everything: a huge potential public in a metropole of 1.1 million inhabitants, sport infrastructures, and we have the team. We already showed it once, why not twice? »

Winny Claret

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