A seventh defeat in nine Top 14 matches brought the difficult reign of Heyneke Meyer at Stade Francais to a sudden but not unexpected end last Tuesday.
The final straw was the 25-9 loss, the 23rd of his 41-match watch, on artificial home turf at Stade Jean-Bouin. It came against cross-capital rivals Racing 92, and left the club seven points adrift of 13th-placed Agen at the foot of the table, nine points from safety – and with a points difference of minus 149 as well as the dubious double distinction of the worst attack and defence in the league.
Meyer’s staff, Pieter De Villiers, Dewald Senekal, John McFarland and Ricardo Loubscher left the club on the same day. Few fans mourned their departure. These are not good times at Stade Francais.
Team affairs for the all-France Challenge Cup match against Brive on Friday were taken by Julien Arias – the veteran Stade winger, who hung up his boots to become the club’s backs coach just a week previously – and another longtime playing stalwart Laurent Sempere, who retired at the end of last season.
Early reports said Meyer was sacked by new general manager Thomas Lombard. The club later said the South African resigned. In the statement, the 52-year-old Meyer’s letter is quoted: “It has always been my intention to do what is best for this great club…and with this in mind, I hereby offer my resignation as coach of Stade Francais.
“It has been an honour to coach the club. I have had a great life experience coaching Stade Français and I have loved my time in Paris.
“I would like to thank Dr Wild, who is, quite simply, a wonderful man to work for and I am grateful for the opportunity and all the support he gave me.
“I would also like to thank the players and my support staff as well as the wonderful supporters. I will always remain a supporter of Stade Francais and wish the club all the success for the future.”
In the run-up to Sunday’s match, Stade’s billionaire owner, Capri-Sun king Hans-Peter Wild gave Meyer a public vote of confidence.
“We have an excellent coach. We don’t need to discuss the quality of our coach,” he told reporters at a Press conference on Saturday. He denied long-running reports that Meyer was on borrowed time, or that two big rugby names were in the frame to replace him.”
Jaguares boss Gonzalo Quesada has been firmly linked with the post. The 45-year-old former Argentinian international fly-half, capped 39 times, leaves Super Rugby in July.
Wild insisted: “I have never planned to hire another coach. I haven’t talked to Gonzalo Quesada and I haven’t talked to Vern Cotter. I haven’t talked to anybody. The coach is the coach. Period.”
Meyer’s resignation three days later attempts to draw a nice, neat line under this latest stretch of a long-running difficult period for Stade. Meyer, a thoroughly decent and honourable man, gets to walk away with dignity in tact. Everyone gets to say – as Lombard reportedly did at a players’ meeting on Tuesday afternoon – that he was a great coach in a difficult job that, this time, didn’t work out.
But there’s no hiding that there’s something rotten in the state of Stade.
Departing fly-half Morne Steyn, a longtime protege of Meyer, made the point in his final interview before he returned to South Africa and one final pre-retirement stint with the Bulls.
“Not everyone is on the same page. Everyone is not following the same things we want to do. That’s the main reason,” he told AFP after last Sunday’s derby defeat.
He drew comparisons with South Africa’s newly crowned world champions. “You can see the vibe of the team has been great and everybody is playing for each other. I feel here at Stade Francais, it is not the same.”
He has a point. There have, for some time, been whispers that the coaches had lost the dressing room. Winning them back is the first job on the to-do list for Sempere and Arias.
The duo admitted as much in their first Press conference ahead of Friday’s Challenge Cup match.
“We’re going to try to refocus ourselves with the players, the staff and also the fans to take up the big challenge that awaits us, that’s the only way we’ll be able to do it,” Arias said. “We need a change of mindset among the players, to make them smile again.”
Their charges, until very recently their former team-mates, are making the right noises, too. “There is a natural hierarchical relationship being made, they are my coaches now,” says second row Paul Gabrillagues.
“We are a solid group, we are all behind them 100 per cent,” said scrum-half Arthur Coville, a 2018 World U20 winner who was criminally underused in the Meyer regime. “It’s complicated right now, we’re going to try to get up as quickly as possible, there’s a team to find.”
Finding the team. That’s the job of Arias and Sempere. Reports on Friday suggest they have been trusted with that responsibility until the end of the season, with a new permanent head coach – Quesada is favourite – starting ahead of the 2020/21 campaign.
But Stade’s problems go further back than the matter of weeks that make up this season – and nor is it confined to just the players and coaches. It goes beyond Meyer’s tenure, past the disastrous attempt to merge Stade with Racing 92 in March 2017 – which, make no mistake, was closer to a friendly takeover of the former by the latter, rather than a union of equals.
Former president Thomas Savare’s efforts to divest himself of the club he took over in 2011, from November 2016, were a symptom rather than a cause. Healing this long-time malaise should be the sole focus of Dr Wild.
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