Aviron Bayonnais was founded in 1904, the result of a falling out between members of La Société Nautique rowing club. They won their first French championship in 1913, led by Welsh outhalf Harry Owen Roe. A Part Talbot man by birth, the Penarth RFC outhalf befriended Jules Forgues, a founding member of Bayonne who spent a season with Penarth. Roe was convinced to move to France as player/coach, where he introduced a style of total rugby that thrilled the French, and led to Bayonne’s first title.
World War 1 took the lives of five of that league-winning side, and it was 1934 before Bayonne would win another trophy. With Roe still involved in a coaching capacity and inspired by 22-year-old wing Maurice Celhay, l’Aviron beat their fierce rivals Biarritz 13-8. There was more glory in 1936 as the club won its first Challenge Yves du Manoir. Seven years later, Bayonne were champions of France again after beating Agen 3-0. In that 1943 side, Celhay was once again inspirational, while the classy centre Jean Dauger was equally as vital.
Bayonne reached the final in 1944 again, but were well beaten by Perpignan. A barren period followed until 1980, when another Challenge Yves du Manoir trophy was claimed. In ’82, Bayonne reached the final of the French championship but Agen got some long-awaited revenge with an 18-9 victory. L’Aviron have had no successes or finals since.
Bayonne sits on the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers in southwestern France, just a few short kilometres from Biarritz and also part of the Basque Country. The town has a population in the region of 46,000. The club’s home ground is the Stade Jean-Dauger, named after Bayonne’s legendary centre who was part of the 1943 league-winning team. The stadium’s address is 1 Rue Harry Owen Roe. There’s a lot of history tied up in the 17,000-capacity stade and the derbies against Biarritz are a French rugby institution.
With a new coaching duo of Christian Lanta and Christophe Deylaud in control, Bayonne’s season got off to a very poor start. Five of the first six league games were lost and it looked like les Bayonnais were heading for a season in the relegation zone. But gradually, Lanta and Deylaud’s ideas took hold and Bayonne improved to end the Top 14 season in eighth position. Indeed, l’Aviron finished the season with five wins in six games, including a memorable victory over Toulon.
Tries were something of a rarity for the Basque side during the 2012/13 campaign; only relegated Mont de Marsan scored fewer than Bayonne’s 32. The attacking side of the game was certainly where they struggled, with a total 467 points only better than Mont de Marsan and Agen (also relegated). For Lanta and Deylaud it was a season focused on building defensive systems and set-piece foundations. Now they must add an attacking edge.
Despite finishing eighth, Bayonne were just four points away from H Cup qualification last season, and they want to go a step further this time around. But as Lanta explains, a top six finish is more of a hope than an objective for les Bayonnais: “We know that there are a few untouchables at the top of the table and it will be complicated to make our way into the top six. But we’re heading towards a more wary Top 14 than last season. And if teams are more careful, there might be surprises. Who would have thought that Castres would be champions?”
Unlike most coaching duos, there is an age gap of 13 years between Lanta (61) and Deylaud (48). As a former back row for Agen, Lanta takes control of the forwards. Deylaud was an international halfback who played for Toulouse, Toulon and Agen. He scored the first-ever five point try in 1992, and also played a major part in The Try From The End of the World in ’94. Lanta’s coaching career began at Racing Metro, with whom he won the French championship in 1990. At Treviso, he won Italian league titles in ’97 and ’98.
Deylaud’s coaching career started at Agen in 2000 when he was appointed as Lanta’s backs coach. After numerous narrow misses, the pairing finally enjoyed success in 2010, when Agen were promoted as champions of the Pro D2. Two solid 10th-place finishes followed in the Top 14 before Bayonne president Alain Afflelou came calling last season. While Lanta and Deylaud furthered their reputation with l’Aviron, Agen were relegated without them.
After the flashy recruitment of the likes of Mike Phillips, Joe Rokocoko and Neemia Tialata in 2011, last season saw a change of approach from Afflelou, with less focus on star names. This summer, outhalf Stephen Brett (27) is the key signing. The Kiwi has spent the last two years playing in Japan after spells with the Crusaders and the Blues in Super Rugby. Brett is an excellent attacking pivot and his vision, distribution and creativity should allow Bayonne to score more tries.
With Agen relegated, Lanta and Deylaud have taken advantage of their history at the club to sign five of their players. Opeti Fonua (27) made himself a YouTube sensation with his bulldozing of Jonny Wilkinson last season, and his 135kg+ frame offers extreme power. Fellow Tongan international Lisiate Fa’aoso (30) joins in the second-row, while Frenchman Jean Monribot (25) is a hard-working presence at blindside. South African tighthead prop Gert Muller (28) played Super Rugby with the Lions, while Fijian Saïmoni Vaka (26) adds flair out wide.
After a frustrating season of limited game time, Argentinian wing Martín Bustos Moyano has joined from Montpellier. The 27-year-old’s excellent place-kicking could take pressure off Brett in that area. Halfback Mathieu Bélie (25) is another who can perform that role, after joining from Racing Metro. Finally, South African loosehead prop JC Janse van Rensburg (27) adds depth to the front row.
Mark Chisholm is Bayonne’s captain and his importance is underlined by the fact that he racked up the most minutes played of anyone in the Top 14 last season. With 58 caps for the Wallabies, the 31-year-old’s experience is key. Scott Spedding (27) was les Bayonnais’ best player over the course of the 2012/13 campaign. The former Lions and Sharks fullback is defensively solid and excellent on counter-attack. Going into his second year at the club, he is already a leader.
Tighthead prop Neemia Tialata began to look like a former All Black as he got to grips with the demands of the Top 14 last season. Still only 31, his power up front is crucial. Compatriot Joe Rokocoko (30) also took his time adapting to the French league but repositioned in the centre, the man who scored 47 tries for the All Blacks showed clear signs of rejuvenation in 2013. At hooker, David Roumieu (31) is a reliable thrower, powerful in the scrum and has a high work-rate.
Mike Phillips is a man who has broken Irish hearts, but he was involved in the British and Irish Lions victory this summer so he has been on our side too. Heading into his third season with Bayonne, the 30-year-old still hasn’t shown his best form in France. While he cannot be absolved of all blame, Phillips is at his best behind a dominant pack and he just hasn’t had that at Bayonne.
With huge expectations remaining unfulfilled, Bayonne fans are hoping to see the real Mike Phillips. Perhaps a better collective effort from les Bayonnais will encourage him towards peak fitness, and the powerful game that brings from Welsh international.
Possible Starting XV
15. Spedding, 14. Vaka, 13. Rokocoko, 12. Lovobalavu, 11. O’Connor/Bustos Moyano, 10. Brett, 9. Phillips, 8. Fonua, 7. Puricelli, 6. Monribot/Bernard, 5. Chisholm, 4. Fa’aoso, 3. Tialata, 2. Roumieu, 1. Iguiniz/Van Rensburg
Photos: Luton Anderson, Eoze04, Bayonne.