From our special correspondent
Heavy rains poured down in the early morning of this first Friday of fall. On the field, the management and players of Rouen Normandie Rugby (RNR) step over the puddles that have formed in front of the prefabs of the training center. The first team migrated to the synthetic pitch adjoining the Jean-Mermoz stadium for a collective work session before the Pro D2 match (the second division) against Biarritz, Wednesday September 27. In this duel of the poorly classified (1), the solid Norman pack wants to get out of the red zone by gaining the upper hand over the Basque giant – five times champion of France – in decline (2).
This poster looks like a passing of the baton. Because, in recent years, new cities have enriched the map of French rugby, until now dominated by teams from the South-West. As proof, the Pro D2 championship currently sees the Bretons of Vannes at the top of the ranking, in addition to having hosted the RNR, the northernmost professional club in France, for five seasons. However, it was from Le Havre and other port cities on the Atlantic coast that this sport was introduced to France in the 1870s by former students of Oxford and Cambridge. “Rugby did not stop for long in Normandy. His practice has crossed the country to Toulouse, Narbonne and the university towns of the South-West. We are catching up with time,” claims Éric Leroy, co-president of the RNR.
In this region, which has long been vibrant for football, basketball and ice hockey, the oval ball is taking root: “We see it in the dynamics of partnerships. Companies find it easier to associate their image with the atmosphere and camaraderie of rugby than with other sports,” assures the right-hand man of the owner Jean-Louis Louvel. Since the CEO of the Rouen group PGS (Palettes gestion services) took over the reins of the club in 2017, more than 200 new partners have linked their destiny with the Normandy team. The goal is to reach the 400 sponsor mark by the end of the season.
Following the model of the clubs of La Rochelle and Vannes, which drew behind them an entire territory in great popular fervor, the leaders of the RNR dream of becoming the emblem of an entire region: “We are in the middle of a fairly large territory , rich in companies and potential sponsors, without competition with other rugby clubs. There is room for a very high level club in Normandy,” enthuses Éric Leroy.
To meet this ambition, the RNR has accelerated its development, improved its sports facilities, and expanded its support. Its budget for the 2023-2024 financial year was increased to 8.5 million euros, compared to 1.6 million in 2017: “If we want to play the leading roles, we will need an envelope of between 12 and 14 million euros. euros, a little more to claim the Top 14.”
The training center is running at full capacity. Full-time salaried educators have been recruited to supervise young people, more and more of whom are turning to rugby. Before the start of the World Cup, the club had 400 members. Within the hopefuls pole, there are almost two thirds of young Normans aspiring to follow in the footsteps of winger Paul Surano, who today wears the colors of Vannes, or of Jean Leleu. At 24 years old, this second line from Pont-Audemer (Eure) has already taken part in 65 matches, while completing his studies as a physiotherapist last June. His little brother Octave, 20 years old, recent military world champion and on a junior contract, trains daily with the professional team.
Twelfth last year in a grueling championship, the RNR is aiming for between 8th and 10th place this year. “Having managed to hold on four times in a row is already an achievement. All those promoted, apart from Soyaux-Angoulême last year, returned the following year,” analyzes Éric Leroy. This progression should logically lead the Rouen club to reach the heights of the ranking and claim accession to the elite at the end of the 2020s. “There, it’s too early! We remain a young club, a little green,” recognizes Dominique Vincent, a volunteer since the mid-1990s, leaning on the bar in the players’ kitchen, which he built with his own hands.
Leaders will not blindly skip ahead. Former pillar of the Rouen XV until 2017, converted scrum coach, Grégoric Bouly, 45, has experienced all the stages of the rise of a club “which knows how to keep its feet on the ground”. “Teams with substantial financial resources like Nevers or Aix-en-Provence take time to realize their ambitions. We must first create synergy. » The consistency of the first team in Pro D2 has already opened the doors of the Robert-Diochon stadium, the historic football stadium with a capacity of 8,300 seats. “It’s another step in our development. At Jean-Mermoz, we were a little cramped, always sold out. The potential is there to fill the Diochon stands,” assures the man who remembers playing in front of 5,000 people against Nantes in the federal championship or against at the PUC (Paris Université Club) in Nationale 2. Jean Leleu, for his part, feels “a growing emulation in Rouen and Normandy” for rugby. “It’s up to us to put on good matches to make people want to come. »
The pioneering spirit of the RNR convinced the manager Sébastien Tillous-Borde, former scrum half of Castres, Toulon and the XV of France (19 caps) to make his contribution. In Éric Leroy’s office, a shield representing the club’s coat of arms, on which is inscribed the name of each player such as that of international winger Gabin Villière (today at RC Toulon), having participated in the rise to Pro D2, hangs on the wall. “They will forever be associated with this adventure. This is what pleases the coaches and the players we recruit. There is everything to write about here. »
Grégoric Bouly is happy that his club is “now armed to attract people with an important track record and experience like Serge Betsen (defense coach from 2021 to 2023, Editor’s note)”. The sluggish start of the Rouennais in the 2023-2024 championship does not worry Dominique Vincent. The father of Fabien Vincent, another emblematic local player who has just hung up his boots, is convinced that the RNR “is playing better than last year and will be ready for this long marathon of 30 matches, which will see many teams collapse after starting too hard.