Racing-Metro 92: Signing top quality European players to finally compete at Europe’s top table by Illtud Dafydd
Jonathan Wisniewski, image by Siren-Com
With a Lions tour well and truly done and dusted for another four years, the squad’s victorious members are finally resting after a long season, three of the test series’ players will report back to pre-season at a new club, in a new country to play in a new domestic league. The Celtic triad of Johnny Sexton, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts are heading to Colombes, a suburb in the north-west of Paris to join up with the sky-blue and whites of Racing Metro 92 in France’s Top 14.
To understand the Racingmen’s ambition that has fuelled their recent and astonishingly quick rise within French rugby, one must look back to the days of the creation of the off-field rugby brand by their ex-player Jack Mesnel which was nurtured by his team-mates practical jokes seen on French rugby fields in the 1980s and early 1990s and also more recently and importantly the funding of the club by Jacky Lorenzetti (the owner of the property group Foncia, founded in 1972) who bought the club in 2006 who has invested millions in taking les Racingmen from the ProD2 to the Heineken Cup in two seasons.
Last season’s performance didn’t sit well with Monsieur Lorenzetti and his coaches’ (in Gonzalo Quesada and Patricio Noriega) contracts weren’t renewed with Castres Olympique coaches Laurent Labit (a former full-back) and Laurent Travers (a former hooker) brought in to replace the Argentine duo who have announced their move across the capital city to head-up Stade Francais’ coaching set-up. Labit and Travers had announced, as early as October that they wouldn’t renew their contracts at Stade Pierre-Antoine and Lorenzetti jumped at the chance to sign both up.
Both had been at Castres for 4 seasons, having taken les tarnais from being an outfit with minor ambitions and keeping their position in the Championnat as their priority to French league Champions by beating Clermont and Toulon on successive weekends to lift the Bouclier de Brennus in June. With this new coaching set-up announced in early 2013, the ex-Montauban coaches began and seemed to have finished recruiting for the coming season with Travers saying “we have re-built a team to handle two competitions simultaneously” during his first interview as Racing Metro’s forwards coach. In the back-room they have added ex-Irish international Ronan O’Gara as a kicking coach and have let go of 18 players by recruiting 14 players in their place.
The two Laurent’s have signed three players with European final pedigree in Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga’uhia from Northampton Saints (2011 Heineken Cup) and Jamie Roberts from Cardiff Blues (Amlin Challenge Cup Winner in 2010) and three players who have been members of a Heineken Cup winning squad with Benjamin Lapeyre and Laurent Magnaval from RC Toulon’s Dublin victorious final last year, but their true ace in the 14-man recruitment pack is three-time European Cup and one-time European Challenge Cup winner with Leinster, Johnny Sexton.
The 28 year-old, 36-time capped Irish international outside-half is rumoured to have a signed a €700,000 annual contract and will be directly coached by the 128-time capped ex-Irish fly-half in Ronan O’Gara. Towards the end of the ex-Munster out-half’s playing career, they were rivals for the Irish number 10 berth, their rugby relationship will take on another dimension at Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir and it could prove to be a pivotal relationship in Racing-Metro’s European plans. Labit and Travers’ recruitment has been helped by them not renewing many of Racing’s players from last season and replaced the mediocre departures with quality arrivals.
Olly Barkley has left Paris, after joining from Bath last season as a medical jokers, to Grenoble and has been replaced by the afore mentioned, 3-test Lion Sexton; the ‘Fijian Flyer’ Sireli Bobo has left for NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes in Japan and Marc Andreu and Benjamin Lapeyre have been brought instead. The legendary Italian record cap holder loose-head prop Andrea Lo Cicero (103 caps for the Azzuri in 13 years) by the Tongan Soane Tonga’uhia and the Georgian prop Davit Khinchagishvili who has 6 years of Top 14 experience and finally Santiago Dellape (62 Italian Caps) with ex-Northampton Saints lock Juandre Kruger who has 11 caps for the Springboks since his debut for the Bokke in 2012.
Jacky Lornezetti’s long-term ambition is underlined by his plans for ARENA92, a 40,000 all-seater stadium which has an estimated cost of €350 million and is due to be ready by 2016 and he has mirrored the former Stade Français president, Max Guazzini by delocalising his club’s home games, with confirmation yesterday that Racing’s first home game of the season on August the 17th against Brive will be played at La Rochelle Stade Marcel Deflandre this trend, present in French rugby for a few years now, seems to be continuing.
It is to be a testing season for Labit and Travers, and with their unrivalled summer recruitment, expectations on both Frenchmen’s shoulders is similar to that of RC Toulon’s expectations by fans, media and a not-so-shy president. With a difficult European pool including last year’s runner-up in Clermont Auvergne, the Harlequins and the Llanelli Scarlets, Lorenzetti’s long-term gamble will be tested in the spring of 2014 when his two new Welsh signings could quite possibly be returning home to claim the pinnacle of Northern Hemisphere at the Millennium Stadium on May 24th.
Illtud Dafydd, French & International Politics Student at Aberystwyth University. Le rugby français par un rugbyman gallois" suffice? (french bit means, French rugby by a Welsh rugbyman)