PARIS (AP) — Stade Francais players are going on strike in protest at a planned merger with Racing 92, their long-standing rivals from Paris.
The merger has proved to be a hugely divisive move, being welcomed by the French league but earning the disapproval of the French Rugby Federation.
Speaking on behalf of his teammates, Stade Francais lock Pascal Pape told reporters on Tuesday that "99 percent" of the squad has agreed with the decision to take action.
"We have decided to go on strike, we find this decision intolerable," said the 36-year-old Pape, a member of the France team that reached the 2011 World Cup final. "It will be a difficult fight, an irritating one for our players. But as the club's most senior player I am standing by this (decision)."
The team's next scheduled match was supposed to be away to Castres on Saturday.
Presidents from both clubs, Thomas Savare (Stade Francais) and Jacky Lorenzetti (Racing), announced their plans on Monday, leaving players shocked.
"I think we've been betrayed, that's the word, by someone we considered up until yesterday to be a part of our family," Pape said, without naming Savare directly. "We thought we mattered to him. This is very hard to take, morally, mentally. We've given so much to this club. So has he, I don't understand it."
In a previous statement, the FFR said it was "shocked" to learn of the proposed merger.
"(The FFR) is also very surprised to hear of the so-called creation of a new club without having been consulted first," the federation said in a statement. "Without having any information to hand, other than that released by the press, it cannot give a ruling on the said project."
FFR president Bernard Laporte said he will summon French league president Paul Goze in the coming days in order to receive "a full explanation."
In a statement called "Stronger Together," the two Paris-based clubs quickly received the backing of Goze.
"It's a historic announcement because it concerns two clubs that have left their mark on French rugby history and won the two first Brennus shields (French titles)," Goze said. "I salute the work done over many years by (club) presidents Thomas Savare and Jacky Lorenzetti. Having heavily invested in their clubs, their wish today is to combine forces in order to take the next step."
Goze said the idea is to build a "strong economic model" — which can be translated as a superclub of the best local talent in the Paris region and the best foreign talent coming into the Top 14, regarded recently as the most lucrative in world rugby.
New Zealand great Dan Carter plays for Racing 92 and the flyhalf also helped the club reach the European Cup final last season, where it lost to English side Saracens.
"In the coming weeks," Goze said, "the LNR will go hand-in-hand with both clubs in the realization of this project."
However, any plans still need to be ratified by French rugby authorities and the FFR has the power to block it.
Racing 92 is the reigning French champion and both clubs play in the Top 14 championship. The clubs have won a combined 20 titles.
Stade Francais center Jonathan Danty, who is preparing to face Wales this Saturday in the Six Nations, said he was surprised when he found out about the intended merger. He said he went to speak with international teammate Henri Chavancy, who plays for Racing 92, to check if it was a hoax.
"I read it on my mobile phone. My first reaction was to go and see Chavancy to ask him if it was a joke," Danty said Tuesday at France's training camp. "After which, we had a meeting between players from both clubs. We went into a room to discuss it. We really thought it was joke, because it's unthinkable for such a thing to happen."
Danty said he was upset because the players were not made aware of the club's plans.
"I'm still trying to come to terms with what's been done behind our backs.
We've always been told we're the future of the club," Danty said. "We've often heard that if we leave, the club's finished, and now we realize that everything's been done behind our backs. It's pretty hard to swallow."