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Ian Moriarty | Columnist Index
Born a stones-throw from Thomond Park, Ian Moriarty cut his journalistic teeth writing for Midi Olympique in France. He is currently a freelance rugby writer and has been contributing to Scrum.com since 2008.
French Rugby Comment
Bourgoin wilt under financial pressure
Ian Moriarty
August 9, 2012
Bourgoin celebrate making the European Challenge Cup final, Bourgoin v Worcester Warriors, Stade Pierre Rajon, Bourgoin-Jallieu, France, May 2, 2009
Bourgoin have little celebrate having been relegated to France's amateur Federale 1 next season © PA Photos
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In every respect it was an ignominious way to go. Bourgoin, leading light of French rugby in the east of the country for the last twenty years, and the cradle to more than 450 French caps in the national team in that time thanks to the likes of Sebastien Chabal, Lionel Nallet and Julien Bonnaire, will start in life in the France's amateur Federale 1 next season, it was confirmed on Wednesday.

The decision by an administrative tribunal in Grenoble to go ahead with the planned relegation of the club came despite a last ditch attempt by Bourgoin to prove that they had the resources to survive in France's second tier. They finished the last ProD2 campaign in ninth, having dropped out of the Top 14 the season before that, which was hardly spectacular yet comfortable enough in a league of 16 clubs. Their budgetary shortfall of €1.35m was however another matter. The club has been no stranger to French rugby's financial watchdog, the DNACG since multi-millionaire benefactor Pierre Martinet pulled his money out of the club in 2009, and when the body voted in June to relegate the club out of professional rugby, it seemed as though their number was up.

Cue France's rather complicated legal system of bells and whistles firing into action; Bourgoin asked the governing body of French sport, le Comité National Olympique et Sportif Français (CNOSF), to rule on the case - which they did by confirming the DNACG decision. Bourgoin weren't finished yet however. Amid protests by the players (who in true French spirit manned flaming barricades at the club's Stade Pierre Rajon ground) and with few options at hand, the club went to the commercial court in Vienne who ruled that the club's books had been in fact in decent enough shape to warrant a rethink by the DNACG. Wednesday's decision by the administrative tribunal in Grenoble was the last throw of the dice and with the start of the season less than a fortnight away the decision leaves the club - and its players - in all sorts of trouble.

For the French club, there was never any suggestion that the club had done anything improper or 'cooked' its books. Bourgoin's crime was that French professional simply outgrew the club. Located in a town of just 25,000 inhabitants, Bourgoin's story is a lesson to the few remaining small town clubs in the Top 14 and provides a road map to the enormous changes that the world's top professional club league has undergone in the last fifteen years.

Things had been so different with the arrival of Pierre Martinet in 1996. Although some of France's clubs had been operating a policy of' shamateurism' in the years leading up to 1995, the differences between the haves and have-nots were nowhere near as pronounced as today. The arrival of Martinet at the club in 1996 was important, especially in later years as the club sought to challenge for French Championships but he was by no means the only reason for their success. The club put all its resources into its youth systems from the start of the 1990's and by the middle of that decade the club was on its way to producing a side that would form the backbone of many a French XV in the following decade.

 
"So where did it all go wrong? Put simply, French rugby grew but the town of Bourgoin did not."
 

The following year proved to be the club's halcyon moment, losing in their first French Championship final to Toulouse but winning the European Challenge Cup. For the following decade they were consistent visitors to the semi-final stage in domestic competition and won France's Espoirs (academy) competition a handful of times.

So where did it all go wrong? Put simply, French rugby grew but the town of Bourgoin did not. Even at the height of their powers in the mid-noughties attendances were still rarely in excess of 6,000. As club budgets grew Martinet found it increasingly difficult to plug the gap - he was sticking in over €2m per annum in his last few years - and the club suffered from having consistently having one of the lowest turnovers of any Top 14 clubs.

When Martinet sold the club for a euro in 2009 the writing really was on the wall. Without a large municipality behind it and precious few corporate partners, Bourgoin simply wilted. A great club, with a wonderful track record for one so small but one doomed to be in shadow of its bigger neighbour Lyon (located 35 km north-west of Bourgoin). The club was finally relegated from the Top 14 in 2011, its place ironically taken by Lyon. There were many involved in the club including president Gerard Gerbelot who thought that the rise of Lyon would be a help instead of a hindrance, a rising tide lifting all boats instead of a huge competitive force. But it just wasn't to be.

Amid all this sadness, it's pertinent to remember that Bourgoin's relegation has saved one the great old clubs of French rugby from their second relegation from pro rugby in three years. AS Beziers remain one of the illustrious names in French rugby but they are just another former great clinging onto the coat-tails of the big city clubs.

Castres supporters should savour their time at the top - their Berjallien friends won't tire of telling them that time is running out for France's small big-time clubs.

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