Belfast Telegraph

Alpine club is now facing a slippery slope

By Michael Sadlier

For Oyonnax the slump has been staggeringly rapid. The rumour mill had already suggested that all wasn't well at the Alpine club, what with their Top 14 season already looking bedraggled, but very few foresaw the sudden dismissal of new head coach Olivier Azam just two days before the club made their Champions Cup bow.

All was so different just a few months ago. As last season came to an end, Oyonnax were celebrating their best ever year having finished sixth in the Top 14 and clinching a first shot at the Europe's elite competition.

Indeed, the unfashionable club had made their mark on the punishing French domestic championship which was some achievement as they had only won promotion to the Top 14 at the end of the 2012-13 season.

And today was meant to be about them taking another significant step by dining out at the Europe's top table after only two seasons in the under-card that is the Challenge Cup.

Instead, Oyonnax are a club engulfed in turmoil. After a miserable two wins in eight Top 14 games has left them one off the bottom of the table, the decision was made to remove Azam who has only been at the club since this summer.

The whiff of player revolt hangs in the air and to remove a head coach prior to their first home game in the Champions Cup is an odd way to do business though clearly last weekend's 38-3 thumping by La Rochelle was the final straw and club president Thierry Emin gave Azam his marching orders with immediate effect even though the coach had already selected the team and given media interviews.

Now it's over to the players - the senior cadre includes ex-Ulster number eight Pedrie Wannenburg, powerhouse Tongan prop Soane Tonga'uiha formerly with Northampton Saints - to deliver for Azam's assistant Stephane Glas who is in temporary charge.

So what has happened? It seems that the club has struggled to cope after the departure of long-serving coach Christophe Urios, the man who moulded Oyonnax from being a second tier side to challenging for honours in the Top 14 in under a decade.

Urios is now at Castres but seems to have left his significant shadow over the struggling club. Now, the vacuum created by Azam's departure needs to be filled and his removal might just be the spark that was needed on the park.

Oyonnax have gone with something close to their strongest line-up too though ex-All Black Piri Weepu and former Wales international Nicky Robinson are part of a mighty looking bench which includes Wannenburg and Tonga'uiha.

As ever, the key battles will be fought out up front where Oyonnax have a sizeable front five and at the breakdown with Tongan international Viliami Maafu, and Romania's Valentin Ursache likely to be damage.

They are skippered by full-back Florian Denos while former Leinster squad member Eamonn Sheridan is in the backline, at inside centre, with Tongan winger Fetu'u Vainikolo the danger man.

Despite all the problems, they are a proud club and the local community is putting on quite a show to welcome the Champions Cup. That allied to their home record in Europe - unbeaten in six Challenge Cup games - means that Oyannax want their revival to start now.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph