Whatever happens between now and the end of May, Edinburgh will welcome the European Team of the Season to Murrayfield in the quarter-final of the Challenge Cup next Friday.
The trophy cabinet at Atlantique Stade Rochelais, to give them their full title, is redundant. The rugby team from La Rochelle, a small port of 80,000 midway down the west coast of France have never, in their 119-year history, won anything worth winning.
Never mind winning, Stade Rochelais have never been to the Top 14 finals. In fact they have never even made the semis. The club’s natural habitat is the ProD2, France’s rough and ready second division but instead the “Pirates”, as they are known, have plundered and pillaged their way to the top of the league.
Last season, La Rochelle finished ninth with 54 points. To date they already boast 72 points (ahead of this weekend’s results) and lead the league, eight points ahead of second-placed Clermont and a whopping 16 points ahead of Montpellier in third.
“A balanced budget, an attractive style of rugby, a jubilant fan base… the club of La Rochelle is the sensation of the season,” is how one French news outlet described Stade Rochelais and it is difficult to argue. Nothing that has gone before prepared us or, you suspect, them for their current success.
The bizarre thing is La Rochelle have managed this with a squad of discards, the “old firm” and oddities. They boast the 150kgs Uini Atonio, the French prop who was the biggest man at the 2015 Rugby World Cup; the club has one winger, Gabriel Lacroix, who is 5 ft 7½ and another, Vincent Rattez, who tips the scales at 75kgs (under 12 stones), the sort of frame usually found attached to a Tour de France velo.
The club fields halfbacks, whose combined age is 70 – Australian Brock James and former Springbok Ricky Januarie, were unwanted by Clermont and Lyon respectively. The giant Fijian lock/flanker Jone Qovu joined from Racing two seasons ago.
With the possible exception of Kevin Gourdon and Atonio, Stade Rochelais are a team without stars; even the double World Cup winning, former All Black Victor Vito spent much of his Test career playing second fiddle to Jerome Kaino.
But the Kiwi flanker appears to be the final piece in the La Rochelle jigsaw, earning rave reviews as his intelligent linking game complements the club’s ball-in-hand style. When he initially signed last summer did he ever imagine that La Rochelle would be leading the pack?
“No,” is the blunt response. “Before I came I was hoping that the club could make the top six because that should be the goal for any club, especially one that has only recently joined the Top 14, like La Rochelle.
“After I watched the very first game against Clermont [a 30-30 draw], knowing they are a very strong club, I still wasn’t thinking top of the table but I thought that we could be in the running. I never, never would have envisioned being top.
“We definitely don’t have the big names like some of the big clubs, Toulon or Racing, but something is clicking. I guess the style of play comes into it but I think it’s just the competitiveness within the team.
“It’s a long season and there are not too many egos around. Of course we are fighting for positions but at the end of the day it’s always about team first and that is something that is nice to see.”
Vito earned 33 All Blacks caps in a five-year international career that took in two World Cups, but he concedes he knew he was “second cab off the rank”, which helped him make the decision to move abroad, and he is honest enough to admit that finance played a massive part.
He joined the unfancied “Pirates” because lock Jason Eaton, another former All Black who played alongside Vito at the Hurricanes, captains the club. Eaton picked up the phone and insisted that La Rochelle was full of “good people” and he was right on that score.
The club has had just three head coaches in the past 25 years (Edinburgh feel like they have had 25 coaches in the past three years) and the present incumbent Patrice Collaco has been there since 2011.
More important is president Vincent Marling, who has guided the club for 25 years. He was the driving force behind the “Grow Together” campaign launched in 2015 that has since persuaded 500 local businesses to support/sponsor the club.
La Rochelle do things differently and that extends to the Challenge Cup ,which has been treated with something approaching disdain by most French clubs over the years. But winning is new for La Rochelle and they are getting to like it. They won five from six of the pool matches, Vito has already made three cup appearances, and if Edinburgh are banking on their French opponents concentrating on the league, they are undoubtedly in for a fright.
“I think we’ll field a pretty strong team to be fair,” says Vito. “We haven’t got a lot of experience by way of finals and, just the way the Top 14 has gone this season, I think that [knock-out] rugby will be good for us to experience.
“So I think we will be treating it pretty seriously because it is going to be the first one [knock-out competition], so long as we stay top six in the league [and therefore qualify for the play-offs]. It’s going to be a good experience no matter what and we don’t want to get experience of losing.”
At just 29 years old, Vito is in the form of his life but the overall age profile of the team suggests that, if La Rochelle don’t nail the Bouclier de Brennus this time out, they might not get a better chance. There are simply too many key players are the wrong side of 30, including 34-year-old Eaton, a driving force in the club.
“That’s the thing I love having these guys around because they make me feel young,” says Vito.
“Recruiting-wise it’s not so much the ‘old firm’, as we call ourselves, there are a lot of young guys who are only just turning 19-20 who are bringing all the energy and what we are doing is bring all the experience and a few extras, I guess.
“It’s a perfect mix. They are finishing off the tries and we [the old firm] are just trying to guide everyone around.”
Does he ever think that if he pinched himself he might wake up to find the Pirates sitting somewhere in the middle of the ProD2?
“This is my first season and this is all I know,” Vito argues.
“All I know is La Rochelle being in the top two to three places. That is my reality right now and I am not worried at all about ProD2.
“It’s good now because this is my experience and I don’t want us going back at all. The dream is alive but there is a lot of rugby still to be played.”