“The Top 14 is very long”: why Stade Français bet on physical and mental freshness

The return to daily life promises to be brutal. The flamboyant parenthesis of the European Rugby Cup barely ended with cascades of tries, wild races, dizzying and bouncing duels under a blazing sun a week ago during the quarter-finals, the dive into a Top 14 much more down to earth acts as hot-cold.

Here, the best student is also the most sober and strongest. Six days before the end of the regular phase, Stade Français, leader, parades its pink jersey under the noses of all the big names, defying the predictions. With three points ahead of Toulouse, the last French survivor in the Champions Cup semi-finals, eleven over Racing, twelve over Toulon and La Rochelle and fourteen over Bordeaux-Bègles, the Parisians, who host Bayonne this Saturday (5 p.m.) at the Jean-Bouin stadium, have already practically secured a direct entry into the semi-final.

Solid foundations, a destructive scrum, a no-nonsense game, an iron defense and steel morale… The recipe works. The numbers don’t lie. The capital club has only five defeats in twenty days and displays the best defense in the division (332 points conceded, or between 16 and 17 on average per match). Solidity worked on upstream. A slogan trumpeted by the director of rugby Laurent Labit and the manager Karim Ghezal, the former assistants of Fabien Galthié who arrived just after the elimination of the Blues in the quarter-final of the World Cup on October 15.

“We decided to prioritize the physical and mental condition of the players over the rugby side,” says Laurent Labit. The Top 14 is very long. Our goal was to involve as many players in the group as possible. We rotated a lot to manage the squad, so as not to find ourselves at the end of the season, at the time of the decisive matches, with players burned out physically or mentally. »

Result: fresh men and a practically empty infirmary (only the second row Mathieu De Giovanni, operated on a shoulder, is missing). The choice quickly paid off under the leadership of a new performance director, Ange-François Costella, who came from Perpignan where he had headed physical preparation since 2017, after stints with Clermont Foot and Olympique Lyonnais.

“Rotating penalizes us in certain matches, particularly for automatisms in attack which take more time to set up,” adds Laurent Labit. Changing eight to ten players every weekend doesn’t help in that sense. But it was our will. »

“We will see on Saturday evening if this cut has done us any good or not”

The elimination in the group stage of the Champions Cup also freed up weekends and rest periods. “This allows us to work without constraint, without impact on the mentality of the players,” specifies the former manager of Racing and Castres. In addition to being difficult, these European Cup final phase matches are a load of stress and emotion for the players. They bring experience, that’s undeniable, but when you lose, you have to digest and get rid of the disappointment and you feel the physical pain more. For our part, we are just focused on our work and we have periods of freshness that other teams don’t have. »

The one that is ending has been stretched out for a long time with three weeks without competition. Doesn’t the lack of rhythm risk playing tricks on the leader? “That’s always the question,” says Laurent Labit. We hope we have spent our time well. We first gave the players a week’s vacation, then we worked from Monday until Friday noon, then we entered a classic week with a match. It’s a bit the same case as our opponent of the day, Bayonne. It will be difficult for both. There is necessarily an element of uncertainty. We will see on Saturday evening if this cut has done us any good or not. »

So far, Stade Français has not made much of a mistake.

Stade Français-Bayonne.

Referee: Pierre-Baptiste Nuchy

French Stadium: Barre – Marchant, Ward, Delbouis, Etienne – (o) Henry, (m) Weber – Briatte, Hirigoyen, Macalou – Halaifonua, Gabrillagues (cap) – P. Alo-Emile, Ivaldi, Abramishvili. Coach : Probably.

Substitutes: Peyresblanques, M. Alo-Emile, Azagoh, Abel-Küffner, Gimbert, Pesenti, Seconds, Melikidze

Bayonne: Tiberghien – Carreras, Erbinartegaray, Mori, Megdoud – (o) Lopez (cap), (m) Machenaud – Héguy, Cassiem, Huguet – Paulos, Ceyte – Tatafu, Bosch, Perchaud. Coach: Fraser.

Substitutes: Giudicelli, Béthune, Mikautadze, Bourdeau, Rouet, Spring, Martocq, Scholtz

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