Union Sportive Arlequins Perpignanais (USAP) was founded in 1902 and just 12 years later the club won its first French championship. 19-year-old outhalf Aimé Giral was the hero after converting a late try by captain Félix Barbe to hand USAP an 8-7 win over Tarbes. 14 months later, Giral and six of his victorious teammates had been killed in World War One, but Perpignan managed to rebuild and won further French titles in 1921 and 1925.
After a turbulent spell which resulted in Perpignan taking on the USAP moniker, the club won the Challenge Yves du Manoir in 1935 and another French championship in 1938. Those sides were captained by international centre Joseph ‘Jep’ Desclaux, who also led the side to glory in 1944. Upon retiring, Desclaux moved into coaching and helped USAP to a Bouclier de Brennus and Challenge Yves du Manoir double in 1955. After that peak, Perpignan had to wait 54 years for another league title.
Following Challenge Yves du Manoir success in 1994, Perpignan gradually built towards a league title in 2009. They lost a Heineken Cup final along the way in 2003, but inspired by a group of home-grown players including David Marty, Jérôme Porical and Nicolas Mas, USAP beat Clermont in the ’09 final to claim their most recent trophy. A year later, that final was repeated but USAP came out on the losing side. Perpignan haven’t made the Top 14 play-offs since.
Perpignan sits in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France. With a population of around 120,000, the Catalan city is also home to a rugby league side, the Catalan Dragons. USAP play their home games at the Stade Aimé Giral, named after the outhalf who led them to their first ever French championship. The stadium holds just over 14,500 people and the USAP crowd is an extremely vocal one.
Having finished 11th in 2011/12, USAP set their sights on H Cup qualification last season and succeeded. They benefited from an extra European spot for the French clubs after finishing 12 points off the play-offs in seventh. With new coach Marc Delpoux attempting to change USAP’s tactical approach, inconsistency was a problem. An increased focus on attack saw the Catalans score the fifth-highest number of points, but just two wins away from home prevented a genuine play-off push.
USAP, with a new president and a renewed energy, are aiming to finish in the top six this season. Over the last two years or so, the club has been in a somewhat precarious financial position. However, parking magnate François Rivière is set to be named president of USAP next week after committing to injecting €7.5 million into the club over the next five years. On the pitch, Perpignan look well equipped to make a strong challenge for the play-offs after some smart recruitment and with an ambitious style of play under Delpoux.
In the Heineken Cup, USAP will be working towards securing second place in the group. The Catalans will certainly provide a tough test for Munster, especially at the Aimé Giral in Round 4.
A former No. 8 for Perpignan and Narbonne, Delpoux’s coaching career began with the latter club before three years with Calvisano, where he won an Italian championship. Having returned to France in ’09/10, Delpoux led Bordeaux to promotion the following season. On their return to the Top 14, UBB played an exciting style of rugby and surprised everyone by finishing eighth. USAP decided they needed to get their former back-row on board and signed Delpoux on a two-year deal.
On arriving at USAP, the 49-year-old stated that “the first ambition is not measured in terms of results, but rather performance.” Delpoux stresses handling skills, offloading and players running into spaces rather than defenders as key. With those aspects of play in place after last season, the USAP boss is now keen for his side to be more effective. If Sang et Or (Blood and Gold, the club’s colours) can add steel to their excellent skill set, they will be in good shape.
Outhalf Camille Lopez has joined from UBB in a move which may push James Hook to fullback this season. 24-year-old Lopez was superb for Bordeaux as he finished fourth-top points scorer (one place behind Hook), and earned his first international caps against New Zealand in June. Lopez is a creative attacking presence, with excellent spatial awareness. His qualities are similar to those of Hook, meaning USAP now possess two exciting playmakers.
The loss of Nicolas Mas to Montpellier will be keenly felt, and the daunting task of replacing the French tighthead prop will go to Giorgi Jgenti (27) and Paulica Ion (30). Georgian international Jgenti had a limited amount of game time at Montpellier last season, while Romanian stalwart Ion joins from London Welsh. 20-year-old back row Karl Château is a promising new face, having developed at Toulouse.
In the backs, Italian international Tommaso Benvenuti (22) has signed from Treviso. With 28 caps to his name already, Benvenuti is a powerful and versatile addition. At scrumhalf, South African Dewald Duvenage and Nicolas Durand replace David Mélé, who has moved to Leicester. Duvenage (25) has five years of Super Rugby experience, while Durand (30) won the Top 14 with USAP in 2009 and signs from Toulon as a medical joker. Fijian wing Watisoni Votu (28) joins from Exeter, hoping to cover the loss of Adrien Planté to Racing Metro.
James Hook is the star at Perpignan and he was superb last season, scoring 262 points in 18 games. More impressive than his ability to rack up points was the manner in which he directed USAP’s attacking play. Now 28, he is mature and decisive in his actions. Delpoux faces something of a dilemma in deciding where to play Hook now that Lopez has joined, with the centre also a possibility for the Welshman. The pair look like kindred spirits, and Lopez may spur Hook onto even greater things.
Perpignan are spoiled for choice in the second row, where Luke Charteris, Romain Taofifenua and Sebastian Vahaamahina will battle for the starting spots. Welshman Charteris made a strong start to life at USAP last season, before a knee injury in December ended his season. In his absence, the gigantic pairing of Taofifenua (22) and Vahaamahina (21) excelled. Both locks are now French internationals and Charteris will have to work hard to get back in the team.
In the back-row, former Gloucester man Luke Narraway (29) is a mainstay of this USAP side. Capped seven times for England, he is a powerful ball carrier and runs the lineout. Alongside him, Scottish international Alasdair Strokosch (30) provides aggression and a huge work-rate. Hooker Guilhem Guirado (27) becomes more of a leader each season, and has improved all aspects of his game. At loosehead, former Chief Sona Taumalolo is explosive, although his place is under threat from Sebastian Taofifenua (21).
Lifeimi Mafi has adapted to life in Perpignan with ease, and looks a better player in his new surroundings than he did at Munster. At the end of last season, The Touchline featured a detailed report on Mafi’s exploits with USAP, which you can read here. This year, he must compete with David Marty, Sione Piukala and Benvenuti for a place in the centre, but realistically it should be Mafi plus one of the others.
Following the departure of Mas, USAP have a new captain in Bertrand Guiry, who is just 25. The openside flanker spent the ’07/08 season playing for Terenure College RFC in Dublin. With his hometown club in Perpignan, he mixes technically excellent tackling with intelligent attacking support play. Guiry’s contributions will be vital as USAP strive for a top six finish.
Possible Starting XV
15. Hook, 14. Michel/Benvenuti, 13. Marty/Piukala, 12. Mafi, 11. Votu, 10. Lopez, 9. Duvenage/Durand, 8. Narraway, 7. Guiry, 6. Strokosch, 5. Taofifenua, 4. Vahaamahina, 3. Jgenti, 2. Guirado, 1. Taumalolo/Taofifenua
Photos: LoKan Sardari, Ivan O’Riordan, Paul Barnard.