Football Club de Grenoble Rugby is one of the few French clubs whose origins lie in the 19th century. In 1892, students of the Lycée Champollion founded the Association Athlétique du Lycée and in 1911, that club merged with three others to form FCG. By 1918 the club had reached the final of the Coupe de l’Espérance, which replaced the French championship during World War 1. Unfortunately, FC Grenoble lost to Racing Club de France, who would later become Racing Metro.
FCG had to wait until 1954 to become champions of France for the first (and only) time. They beat US Cognac 5-3 in the final, inspired by legendary scrumhalf Jean Liénard. The next period of success for the Isère-based club came in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In 1987, the club won the Challenge Yves du Manoir and the club were regular challengers for the league title during that period. In 1993, powered by a pack nicknamed Les Mammouths, FCG reached the final but lost 14-11 to Castres due to a controversial try by All Black Gary Whetton.
In 1999/00, FCG made an appearance in the group stages of the Heineken Cup and beat Northampton, who went on to win the tournament that season. By 2005/06, Grenoble had been relegated to the Fédérale 1 due to a €3.6 million deficit in their accounts. FCG went straight up to the Pro D2 that season and spent the next six years steadily improving in the second tier. At the end of 2011/12, Grenoble were crowned champions and promoted to the Top 14.
Grenoble sits in the mountainous Isère department, within the Rhône-Alpes region in the south-east of France. The city has a population of close to 157,000. FCG’s home is the Stade Lesdiguières, with a capacity of 11,900. For the bigger games, FCG use the Stade des Alpes, home to Grenoble Foot 38 and which holds 20,000. In February, FCG announced plans to build a new stand at the Stade Lesdiguières, which will feature training facilities, offices and VIP boxes. The construction will boost the stade’s capacity and work is expected to commence next summer.
On their return to the Top 14 last season, Grenoble got off to a scintillating start. After putting down a strong pre season, les Isèrois picked up wins over the likes of Stade Francais, Racing Metro, USAP and Toulouse in the aller phase of the league before Christmas. Up until match day 18, FCG were sitting sixth in the table before finishing the season with a bad run of form. Seven losses in eight games saw Grenoble end the season in 11th, but they were 23 points clear of relegated Agen in 13th.
FCG’s defence, under the watch of Bernard Jackman, was ninth-best in the league in terms of points conceded, with their attack 11th overall. Whatever about the stats, it was a case of job done for Grenoble last season. The single objective had been to stay up following promotion and their excellent form in 2012 ensured that was achieved.
Grenoble will be aiming to repeat the effort of last year. Of most importance is avoiding relegation but if FCG can get off to as strong a start as last season, they can work towards mid-table solidity. President Marc Chérèque understands the need for the club to grow each year, and with that in mind Grenoble should be targeting a finish in the top 10. Head coach Fabrice Landreau decided to bring his squad back for pre season earlier than any other team in the Top 14, hoping that extra fitness base will prevent another collapse in the retour phase of the league.
Having begun his playing career in the lower leagues with his native Angoulême, Landreau joined Grenoble in 1992 and became part of the Mammouths de Grenoble pack who almost won the French championship in ’93. The hooker left FCG in ’97 and had brief spells with Neath RFC, Bristol and Racing Metro. In ’99 Landreau joined Stade Francais and helped them to the French championship alongside the likes of Diego Dominguez and Christophe Dominici. Following that success, he earned his first French cap at the age of 31, going on to win four in total.
After retiring in 2003, Landreau only had to wait a year for his first coaching job. Fabien Galthié was appointed head coach at Stade Francais and asked Landreau to look after the forwards. Over the next five seasons, the ex-hooker helped the club to a Top 14 trophy, a H Cup final, and three Top 14 semi-finals. In 2009, Grenoble made the shrewd move of offering Landreau his first head coaching position. Since then, the 44-year-old has led FCG to consistent improvement: 6th in the Pro D2, semi-finalists the next year, Pro D2 champions in 2012 and 11th in the Top 14 last season.
The most familiar name to have joined l’effectif at Grenoble this summer is Olly Barkley. The 31-year-old signed for Racing Metro as a medical joker last season, but failed to impress in 11 starts. Rather than return home, the 22-times capped Englishman has taken up the challenge of aiding FCG’s rise. Landreau will hope to see Barley at his goal-kicking, strong-running best. Another place-kicking option will be Julien Caminati, recruited from Brive. The fullback/wing was superb in the Pro D2 last season and is relishing the chance to prove himself in the Top 14 again.
The two most important additions Grenoble have made are Peter Kimlin and Dan Palmer from the Brumbies. Kimlin (27) impressed in the Australian side’s win over the Lions, and has been superb in this year’s Super Rugby. His ability to cover the back row and lock will be vital. Palmer (24) is considered among the best scrummaging tightheads in Australia, but his intro to the Top 14 will help him discover exactly what it means to scrummage every single weekend.
Amongst the other new faces are centre Geoffrey Messina, who is something of a Top 14 veteran with previous spells at Clermont, Stade Francais and Toulon. Halfback Nicolas Bézy (23) signs from Stade Francais, hoping to finally fulfill his potential. The biggest loss for FCG this summer is Jonathan Pelissié, a lively halfback who has joined Montpellier. Talented winger Lucas Dupont (23) also leaves les Grenoblois for Montpellier.
FCG are captained by Andrew Farley, born in Australia but capped for Ireland ‘A’ during his five seasons with Connacht. Since moving to Grenoble in 2009, Farley has been almost ever-present in the team and at 32, shows no signs of slowing down. Scrumhalf Valentin Courrent is as experienced as they come in the Top 14 but will come under pressure from Bézy and Mathieu Lorée this season.
In the back row, Jonathan Best has been a stalwart for the club since joining in 2006 and has the ability to play 6 or 7. Generally, Grenoble are as far from a team of stars as you will get, and team work is a big part of their make-up. That’s likely to be the case again this season, although the new signings will be expected to make a match-winning difference.
Farley is not the only Irish player on the books at Grenoble. 21-year-old James Hart is going into the second year of his espoirs contract after making an impact last season. The ex-Leinster U20 halfback made six appearances including two starts in the Top 14. He also proved himself to be a tidy goal-kicker with three penalties and three conversions. Hart will be hoping for further opportunities with FCG this season, despite plenty of competition at scrumhalf.
Bernard Jackman is also moving into his second year at the club. His role at FCG has been expanded this season to include working on collision skills as well as defence. It’s encouraging to see the ex-Ireland international involved in such a technical position, where he is joined by another Irish coach in Mike Prendergast. The former Munster scrumhalf joins the club as a skills coach, following several seasons as Director of Rugby with Young Munster.
Also joining from Young Munster is outhalf/centre Shane O’Leary. The Munster U20 cap made his Ulster Bank League debut under Prendergast last season, as well as playing for Canada U20s at the Junior World Rugby Trophy. O’Leary joins Grenoble’s academy, and is one worth keeping an eye on.
With such a strong Irish influence, Grenoble will surely have many supporters on these shores for the upcoming season.
Photos: Liam Coughlan, Pierre-Selim.