La Rochelle braced for rugby celebration 'meltdown'
Thousands of rugby fans gathered in the centre of the port city of La Rochelle on Sunday as the French team prepared to take a triumphant bus ride through the streets to show off the Champions Cup.
La Rochelle won the trophy for the second year running after a stunning fightback from 17-0 down to edge Leinster 27-26 in Dublin on Saturday, a repeat of last year's final in Marseille.
The return of Ronan O'Gara's team late on Saturday night was already greeted by hundreds of supporters at the airport but Sunday's parade on a double-decker bus promises to be far bigger.
From the stars stuck on the roofs of bistros and brasseries to the rows of flags in the windows of buildings, most of the buildings in the Old Port of the Atlantic coast city were lined with yellow and black, the colours of the team.
"When they arrive, it's going to be crazy," said an impatient Nathan, 24, a lens missing from his yellow and black glasses after a night of partying in the city.
At midday, in a good-natured atmosphere to the sound of a brass band dressed up in the yellow and black hooped jerseys of the popular comic book criminals The Daltons, many families and supporters took their places on the quayside to be closer to their heroes.
Meanwhile restaurant owners cleared their terraces after lunch to make way for the crowds, who were expected in their droves.
- Remarkable rise -
Rugby has long been a passion in La Rochelle but their return to the Top 14 in 2015 has prompted a remarkable rise in their fortunes.
For a start, the club is owned by the fans which sees them sell-out every home match.
They reached the final of the Challenge Cup in 2019, when they lost to fellow French team Clermont, and their first Champions Cup final in 2021 when they fell to another French team Toulouse.
They have followed that defeat with successive wins over a formidable Leinster team, and have already qualified for the semi-finals of the domestic Top 14.
According to city mayor Jean-Francois Fountaine, the celebrations "will be even stronger than last year", when 35,000 fans gathered to mark their first title.
"We expect to see 50,000 people on the route" which will run from the station to the port.
"The match was unbelievable. The club's profile is still on the rise and it is settling into the European elite," the mayor told AFP, with a club scarf around his neck.
For Thierry, 63, a long-time supporter who has been sitting with his family under yellow and black parasols "since 5am", it promises to be a memorable moment for this rugby-mad city.
"The people of La Rochelle are going into meltdown," he said. "We are very proud of them. We are on top of the world."