Shock club merger halts French rugby contests

By Brian Love
FILE PHOTO: Stade Francais supporters cheer during the French Rugby union final against Clermont at the Stade de France in Saint Denis near Paris June 9, 2007. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo

By Brian Love

PARIS (Reuters) - France's rugby authorities postponed two major weekend fixtures on Friday after crisis talks prompted by the abrupt announcement of plans to merge two arch-rival Paris clubs, Racing 92 and Stade Francais.

The National Rugby League (LNR) said that the "shockwave and emotion" sparked by Monday's merger announcement justified the postponement of the two clubs' Top 14 fixtures pending more talks on the disputed tie-up next Monday.

"The LNR has taken the unprecedented nature of the situation into account and decided, exceptionally, to push back to a later date this weekend's matches between Castres Olympique and Stade Francais and between Montpellier Herault Rugby and Racing 92," it said in a statement.

The clubs say the merger would create a new, stronger club that could enjoy a bigger fan base in the French capital.

But players at Stade Francais have called an open-ended strike in protest, leading to more than three hours of apparently inconclusive crisis talks on Friday.

The impasse comes at the end of the Six Nations tournament on Saturday when France host Wales and when defeat could mean France dropping out of top eight seeds for the 2019 World Cup.

Dozens of fans, mostly Stade Francais supporters wearing scarves and tops in the club's trademark pink, chanted outside the meeting and challenged Racing stars such as barrel-chested hooker Dimitri Szarewski as he entered the Paris talks.

Szarzewski, who spent seven years at Stade Francais before moving in 2012 to Racing 92, said he was in favour of the tie-up but added in response to questioning from an irate fan of his former side: "The way it was announced wasn't good."

Racing 92 reached the final of Europe's Champions Cup last season while Stade Francais were finalists in 2001 and 2005.

The Racing squad features Dan Carter, a world champion with New Zealand's All Blacks, and both clubs are packed with internationals. Their presidents argue the combination will give birth to a top European side.

Adding to the confusion over the announcement, Racing is building a new stadium that it hopes will also house rock concerts and other big events that ensure long-term financial security. Stade Francais has a stadium that has already been totally renovated with Paris City Hall help and the same aim.

Racing 92 president Jacky Lorenzetti has gone as far as to suggest that the alternative to a tie-up could be a takeover - understood to mean a takeover of Stade Francais rather than his own more financially prosperous club - by Qatar.

To many fans, brandishing the spectre of a takeover by the gas-rich Gulf state is tantamount to warning that massive money could lopside French rugby competition in similar fashion to the prowess that Paris St Germain has enjoyed since it became one of the world's richest clubs under Qatari control.

(Reporting by Brian Love; Editing by John Irish and Alison Williams)

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