A planned merger between Parisian powerhouses Stade Francais and Racing 92 has sent shockwaves through French rugby, with the head of the national players' union calling it "disgusting" and promising to help fight it.
Players and fans alike reacted with anger when the surprise announcement was made on Monday, triggering a strike by Stade Francais players and speculation in French media of that spreading within the Top 14 league at the weekend.
In a text message sent to Reuters, Robins Tchale-Watchou, the head of the players union, confirmed: “They're [Stade Francais players] on open-ended strike.”
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Racing reached the final of Europe's Champions Cup last season while Stade Francais were finallists in 2001 and 2005. The Racing squad features Dan Carter, a world champion with New Zealand's All Blacks, and both clubs are packed with internationals, so their presidents argue the combination will give birth to a top European side.
Players and fans, however, strongly disagree.
Stade Francais' Djibril Camara said it was like "you're suddenly being told you're going to live with your neighbours who you hate.”
Racing's Henry Chavancy said: "I've been checking but no, it's no April Fool."
Tchale-Watchou said the presidents of the two clubs owed explanations to the players.
"The way it has been done is disgusting," he said. "This has been done without any consultation with the players, the fans or the institutions. It's total panic."
Jean-Pierre Chivrac, the head of Racing's fans association, said: "It's like being stabbed in the back."
Though the move has been framed as a merger, with Stade Francais president Thomas Savare struggling for funds, the project is being seen in local media as a takeover.
It raises tricky financial and contractual questions. As teams are subject to a monthly salary cap, the new club will have to let go of some top talent, leaving players and staff casting around for a new job three months before the end of the season.
"What do we do about those players who signed pre-contracts for next season, those players who have started making arrangements for next season?" said Tchale-Watchou.
At stake is the future of two teams with 20 French titles between them, who contested the first league final in 1892.
"They're just burying 130 years of rugby history," Tchale- Watchou said.
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