Category Archives: International Rugby

Rebels Ditch Beale and O’Connor

For hire: Utility back (not outhalf) who can run fast, sidestep, tackle, pass long off both sides and has superb hair. (c) WP Photography Geelong.

The majority of the reaction to the Rebels’ decision not to offer Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor new deals at the club for 2014 has focused on the duo’s off-field issues. That attention is justifiable and those problems were definitely a powerful motivating factor behind the Rebels’ call. However, the most important aspect of rugby is still the actual games on the pitch. The Rebels would certainly have studied whether or not Beale and O’Connor’s performances in Super Rugby meant it was worthwhile putting up with the off-field problems.

James O’Connor

After joining the Rebels in 2012, O’Connor played 21 of a possible 32 games. Just one of those 21 appearances came from the bench, incidentally his last. The 23-year-old stared nine times at outhalf, six times at fullback and five times at inside centre (second five-eight). The most consecutive starts he had in one position was five at outhalf. That movement between positions highlights one of the problems of O’Connor’s playing career so far: no one knows his best position.

Over the last two seasons, the Queenslander scored 201 points for the Rebels, including three tries. With O’Connor possessing the pace and footwork he does, one might expect his try-scoring rate to have been higher than 0.14 per game, especially when compared with a rate of .25 per game over four seasons at the Force. In terms of place kicking, O’Connor scored 44 penalties and 27 conversions, at an accuracy rate of just over 78%.

James O'Connor

JOC played 10, 12 and 15 for the Rebels. (c) Jesse Fanthorpe.

In 2012, O’Connor was involved in just one of the Rebels’ four wins. That victory was at home to the Blues, when he played at outhalf. In the minutes that the Rebels had O’Connor on the pitch in 2012, they were 236-113 aggregate losers to the opposition. To sum it up, with O’Connor on the pitch in 2012, the Rebels’ record read: Played 8, Won 1, Lost 7, with a points difference of -123.

Without O’Connor, the Rebels record was more impressive: Played 13, Won 6, Lost 5, Drew 2. The aggregate score on those occasions was 303-277 in favour of the opposition, a much improved points difference of -26. It must be noted that these records include the spells when O’Connor was substituted off the pitch, but that only serves to highlight the main point. Without JOC on the pitch, the Rebels were statistically a better team in 2012.

In 2013, the Wallaby played more often for the Rebels, but the stats tell a similar story. With O’Connor on the field, the Melbourne club had a record of: Played 13, Won 3, Lost 10. The aggregate score was 368-270 against, a points difference 0f -98. Without JOC on the pitch, the Rebels were numerically better: Played 6, Won 3, Lost 3, with a combined score of 147-113, a points difference of -35. That said, O’Connor was involved in three of the Rebels’ five wins, starting both victories against the Force and making a telling impact off the bench last weekend versus the Highlanders.

Kurtley Beale

Rugby

For hire: Outhalf/fullback with vision, searing pace, creative playmaking skills and footwork from another planet. (c) Graham MacDougall.

Beale also joined the Rebels for the start of the 2012 season, but played even less than O’Connor. Over the last two seasons Beale made 14 appearances, all but one of them in the starting team. He was selected at outhalf on 7 occasions, and fullback the remaining 7 times. Just like JOC, there are still differing opinions on Beale’s best position. Interestingly, of the four times Beale tasted victory in a Rebels’ jersey, he was wearing number 10 in three of them.

Beale’s scoring impact for the Rebels was understandably lower than O’Connor’s, given that he played less and was not the front-line place kicker. The 24-year-old contributed a total of 50 points, including four tries. That puts Beale at a try-scoring rate of .31 tries per full game at the Rebels, better than his .21 rate at the Waratahs. From the tee, Beale kicked 6 conversions and 14 penalties, with an accuracy rate of 87%.

In 2012, Beale was involved in three of the Rebels’ four wins. With the Sydney man on the pitch, the Rebels’ record read: Played 10, Won 3, Lost 7. The total scoreline was 300-208 to the combined opposition, a points difference of -92. Without Beale out on the field, the Rebels were: Played 8, Won 2, Drew 1, Lost 5. On those occasions the aggregate score was 220-154, an improved points difference of -66.

In 2013, the fact that Beale played just four times means the stats cannot be relied upon as heavily as above. However, it is important to note the difference in the Rebels’ performances when Beale did play. With him involved, the Rebels were: Played 4, Won 1, Lost 3. But the key stat here is a points difference of -12 in those 4 games. Without Beale, the Rebels’ record in 2013 was: Played 14, Won 4, Lost 10. The aggregate score was 431-331, a vastly inferior points difference of -100.

Combination

Kurtley Beale for the Wallabies

O’Connor (left) ready to choose exactly the line Beale wants him to. The Rebels didn’t get enough from this combination. (c) richseow.

To the naked eye, O’Connor and Beale combine well on the pitch. They appear to read each others attacking intentions instinctively and usually pick ideal lines off each other when the chance arises. Rebels fans haven’t had too many opportunities to see the pair playing together though. Over the last two years, Beale and O’Connor have been on the pitch together only 10 times for the Rebels.

In 2012, the combination didn’t bring success, with the Rebels winning just once of the six occasions, with an aggregate scoreline of -88. In 2013, the combination showed signs of improvement, but unfortunately only had four chances to do so. The Rebels won twice, and actually had a points difference of +3 overall. The great shame is that Beale’s personal issues prevented us from seeing more of the combination that looked so promising in brief glimpses.

Cutting Losses

All of the above should be processed with the reminder that the Rebels are still a weak team. That’s entirely natural, given that they have only finished their third season in Super Rugby. Over the last two years, the Rebels have won just nine games. On four of those occasions neither O’Connor nor Beale, the club’s ‘best’ players, were involved. At times it has looked as though the Rebels squad have been liberated by the star duo’s absences. It will be interesting to see if that effect can last into next season now that the club has decided to ditch their two marquee players.

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Photos: WP Photography Geelong, Jesse Fanthorp, Graham MacDougall, richseow.

The Day Ireland Beat New Zealand

Munster All Blacks Thomond

Were Munster the only Irish team ever to beat New Zealand? Read on… (c) Martin Dobey.

Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks. Each time we play the standard bearers of world rugby, we are reminded of this stat. In 27 efforts, Ireland have lost to New Zealand 26 times. The solitary draw came in 1973, a 10-10 stalemate in Lansdowne Road. At underage level, we have never beaten the Baby Blacks. Mike Ruddock’s U20 side came close last Thursday, but the record remains unbroken. Our women’s team has never beaten the Black Ferns, although they haven’t had a chance to do so yet.

It would appear that Munster are the only Irish rugby team to have beaten New Zealand, with that famous 12-0 victory in 1978. But if you dig a little deeper, there is a dirty secret to be exposed: Ireland beat New Zealand in 1973, by a scoreline of 22-18. How has this result gone ignored you will surely ask? Possibly because the game took place at the International Seven-A-Side Tournament at Murrayfield in Scotland. That’s right, sevens!

On the 7th of April in 1973, the Scottish Rugby Union held the tournament as part of their centenary celebrations. Eight international teams were involved, representing each of the IRB-registered rugby nations at the time: Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, France, Australia, New Zealand, and an SRU President’s VII which included several South African players.

Ireland’s nine-man squad was a talented one. Vincent Becker was a lightning quick winger from Lansdowne who also represented Ireland in the 100 metres. He went on to win two Ireland caps in 1974. Arthur McMaster was a winger from Ballymena, who won 18 senior Irish caps, scoring 2 tries. Seamus Dennison was the the Limerick man who made that tackle for Munster when they beat the All Blacks. He won three Irish caps, scoring one try.


Kevin Mays was London-born but playing out of UCD. The lock won four full caps for Ireland in 1973. Donal Canniffe was the captain of Munster when they beat the All Blacks. In ’73, the scrumhalf was still with Cork Con, before later joining Lansdowne. Fergus Slattery was already a well established Irish international, and a non-capped Lions tourist in ’71. The flanker’s career finished with 61 Ireland caps and four for the Lions.

Hooker Pa Whelan was another involved in Munster’s win in ’78. The Garryowen man went on the win 19 Irish caps. Terry Moore was a big No. 8 from Highfield in Cork. He would end his career with 12 caps for Ireland. Last but not least was the captain, Mike Gibson. The Belfast man’s Ireland career had begun in 1964 and he had already toured three times with the Lions. After 69 caps for Ireland and 12 for the Lions, he went on to become an IRB Hall of Famer.

It was certainly a formidable Irish selection. In their opening game of the tournament they came up against New Zealand and duly dispatched them 22-18, having led 10-6 at the break. It’s unclear who did the scoring for Ireland, with the available records not extending to that detail. The Irish team went on to beat Australia 16-4 in their next game, before securing a place in the final with a 24-12 win over Scotland.

The final saw the Irish face an English team of considerable strength themselves: David Duckham, Steve Smith, Andy Ripley, Roger Uttley, Peter Preece, John Gray, Peter Rossborough and Keith Fielding were captained by the enigmatic Fran Cotton. The English were victorious, claiming the trophy by another 22-18 scoreline. Although the tournament was never awarded official status by the IRB, the Irish team had essentially finished runners-up in the first Sevens World Cup, and beaten New Zealand for the first time in our rugby history.

happy european champion Portugal

Portugal celebrate their win at the European 7s in 2008. In Ireland’s squad at that tournament were James Coughlan, Darren Cave, Ian Keatley and Chris Henry. Ireland finished 4th to qualify for the 2009 World Cup, the last time we fielded a team.

There’s more to this than just a good story. The 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens takes place in Russia from the 28th to 30th of June, with the likes of Portugal, Hong Kong, Uruguay, Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Tunisia all involved in the party. Following the Italian rugby federation’s recent decision to implement a sevens programme, Ireland are now the only nation in the top 17 of the IRB World Rankings without a sevens team.

The developmental advantages which sevens offers to 15-a-side players are something I’ve written about before, but the fact that sevens is an Olympic sport adds even more value to the calls for the IRFU to get behind it.

Something is amiss…

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Photos: Martin Dobey, Stefanie.

Ruddock and his Wolfpuppies Ready For France

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Ed Byrne scoring for the Wolfpuppies during their 31-26 loss to New Zealand. (c) IRB.

The Ireland U20s play host nation France in the Junior World Championship fifth-place semi finals tomorrow evening after narrowly missing out on a spot amongst the top four teams. Similarly to last year, the Wolfpuppies have impressed greatly at this tournament. The amount of talent at Ireland’s disposal and the high skill level throughout the squad offer encouraging signs for rugby in this country.

One of most impressive things about Mike Ruddock’s team has been their attitude. Over the last three years, the Welshman has worked hard to instill confidence in his U20 sides. The aim has been to convince young Irish players that they are every bit as talented as their international peers. That message is clearly getting across, with a win over Australia and an excellent performance against New Zealand in which the Wolfpuppies were clearly not overawed.

Following that loss, a quote from outhalf Steve Crosbie stuck out. Expressing his disappointment, he revealed just how ambitious the Irish U20s have become: “There is no way we are taking our foot off the pedal here now. We set our goals to win this competition, but that’s not possible now.” The fact that Ireland will see their performance as something of a failure is reason to laud Ruddock’s work at this level.

This winning attitude can only benefit Irish players in the long-term. Whereas five years ago, several of our players at this level wouldn’t have had serious thoughts about a professional career, every single one of these Wolfpuppies will expect to become a full-time professional rugby player.

The single most impressive aspect of this team is the style in which Ruddock has them playing. The Wolfpuppies have been fabulously entertaining to watch. The squad is laden with skillful players and Ruddock has played to that strength. He has given his team the freedom to offload and encouraged them to move the ball into wide channels, where their excellent support play has stood out. It’s intelligent, well-organised rugby and refreshing to watch.

Ruddock’s name was one of those in the mix to replace Declan Kidney when it became clear that Ireland would be employing a new Head Coach at senior level. With Joe Schmidt now in place, we should be thankful that Ruddock remains in charge of the Wolfpuppies. His role in the development of these young players is crucial and Irish rugby should be working hard to ensure it continues for some time yet.

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Christopher Tolofua

Tolofua at Toulouse is 120kg of beef at hooker for the French. (c) Pierre Selim.

Ireland’s opponents tomorrow night are France. The hosts have had a mixed bag of a tournament so far. In the opening game, they were 30-6 losers to England in what was a jarring disappointment. Didier Retier’s side bounced back with a  45-3 win over a weak USA side, who went on to be beaten 119-0 by England. France’s final pool game saw their most impressive performance, despite losing 26-19 to South Africa.

Based on the reputations of the players, this is not a bad French squad. Hooker Christopher Tolofua has made 16 starts for Toulouse over the past two seasons, including two in the Heineken Cup. Playing his second year at this level, the 120kg battering ram takes some stopping. In the back-row, Yoruba Camara is joining Toulouse next season after developing at Pro D2 side Massy. The rangy flanker is quick, athletic and can offload out of the tackle.

Alongside him, No. 8 Marco Tauleigne is a chunky unit at around 115kg. He spent this season with Federale 1 champions Bourgoin, but is moving to Bordeaux in the Top 14 this summer. His carrying is muscular, meaning Ireland’s back-row will need to be alert. Out wide, the French can call on Biarritz flyer Teddy Thomas. He scored four tries in four Top 14 starts this season, as well as two against Gloucester in the Amlin CC. Already a 7s international, Thomas is elusive, pacy and full of flair from fullback.

Apart from those big names, the French can call on five other players who have experience in the Top 14: prop Cyril Baille (Toulouse), sub hooker Romain Ruffanech (Biarritz), lock Leo Bastien (Agen), scrumhalf Baptiste Serin (Bordeaux) and outhalf Vincent Mallet (Stade Francais). Flanker Mathieu Babillot has already made his Heineken Cup debut for Castres. Centre Thibault Regard and winger Gabriel Lacroix are regulars at Pro D2 level. In terms of senior club level experience, the French outdo the Wolfpuppies.

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Teddy Thomas of Biarritz is a danger man for the French. (c) IRB.

However, in every other aspect of importance to this game, the Irish have more to call on. Based on the performance’s of both teams at this JWC, Ireland are the favourites. France have the advantage of playing at home, but that did them no good against England and South Africa. Furthermore, the Wolfpuppies were 22-5 winners when these sides met in Athlone back in March. Both squads have changed somewhat since then, but Ireland have developed far more rapidly.

The Baby ‘Boks made plenty of metres in wide channels against France, and Ireland should look to exploit that weakness too. The French wingers are quick but very lightweight and that should suit the Wolfpuppies. England created several line breaks of the French defence with short passes to support runners inside and outside their centres. Again, those trail lines are something Ruddock’s men are good at, and we should hope to see more of the same.

The French pack are strong in their carrying around the fringes of rucks through the likes of Tolofua, Tauleigne and Baille. No surprise really, with Les Bleus legend Fabien Pelous as manager of the team. Ireland will need to ensure their defence is solid either side of the breakdown.

Ireland appear to have all the tools to ensure a 5th-place playoff final at the JWC for the second year running. Either Australia and Argentina await in that game. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, the French must be dealt with first. Here’s hoping that the Wolfpuppies will be celebrating another win tomorrow night.

At the end of the day, this is a development tournament with the aim of producing professional players. Irish professionals for whom beating the likes of Australia and France is the norm would be greatly welcome.

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You can listen to me talking about the Ireland U20s and this game on yesterday’s Big Red Bench on Cork’s Red FM. Have a listen here:

Photos: Pierre Selim, IRB.

Video Post: James O’Connor Wallabies Outhalf?

Wales vs Australia

O’Connor looks set to start at outhalf against the Lions. (c) Salman Javed.

Judging on the available evidence, I think James O’Connor will start at outhalf against the Lions in the first Test. My personal preference would be for Quade Cooper to start at 10, and use O’Connor at 14. If the Reds playmaker impresses on Saturday against the Lions, who knows? However, for now Cooper remains outside the Australian squad and everything Deans has said up up to this point suggests it will be O’Connor running out at 10. So what does the Rebels man bring to the outhalf position?

O’Connor defends bravely, can beat players with his footwork, place-kicks competently, is explosively quick, has a high work-rate and passes excellently. All in all he’s a very complete rugby player, as highlighted in the video below. His passing game from outhalf would allow the Wallabies to attack in wide channels from first-phase, as well as in open play. O’Connor is very accurate in this regard, and he’s good at spotting space out wide in defences.

However, that vision doesn’t extend to the space in behind defences and that’s one of the areas where O’Connor lags behind Jonny Sexton. He rarely puts grubbers, chips or cross-field kicks in behind defences. The first thought for him is nearly always either to pass or run. This should allow the Lions defensive line to push up quickly without worrying too much about the space left in behind.

That inability to vary his game leads to the biggest problem with O’Connor playing outhalf: he doesn’t ‘boss’ his team around the pitch. He’s relatively inexperienced at outhalf and, as anyone who has ever tried to step into the number 10 shirt from another position will tell you, controlling a team from 10 is very demanding. O’Connor seems to struggle with making decisions about where he should direct play, when to kick and when to attack.

The Wallabies likely ploy to counteract that deficiency is to use several playmakers throughout the team. As you’ll see in the video, they’ve done this in the past by using a distributing second-five-eighth outside O’Connor, namely Berrick Barnes. Also, Will Genia at 9 will take on a lot of the responsibility for marshaling the forwards around the pitch and deciding when to kick. Also, I think Kurtley Beale will have a big role to play in this regard, stepping up from fullback.

That should allow O’Connor to focus on his strengths. If Australia use other playmakers intermittently, that will allow O’Connor to pop up in wider channels, where he is lethal. If Deans does decide to go with a system similar to this, it will ask demanding questions of the Lions’ defence. With O’Connor, Beale and Barnes/Lealiifano (if they play a creative 12 rather than a bosher like Horne) swapping around the pitch, there will be danger from all angles.

I’m still unconvinced that outhalf is O’Connor’s best position, but he’s still a good option there. While I feel that Cooper would be a better choice for the Wallabies, having O’Connor at 10 is not going to weaken them greatly. The 22-year-old (with 37 caps!) is among the best players in the world. He comes across as very mentally strong and I think this Lions tour will see him stepping up a level on what we’ve seen before.

Check out the video below for some examples of what O’Connor can offer from outhalf, and some of the areas where the Lions could have an advantage.

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Photos: Salman Javed.

Super Week for South African Sides

By Nsovo Shimange

SupeRugby

It was a great weekend for the SA sides in SupeRugby.

In the first couple of rounds of the SupeRugby competition we watched as the New Zealand teams took each other on with a break-neck style of running rugby, with play being taken from end to end in a matter of seconds. The result of this was an exciting feast of tries. In the eyes of the rugby-mad public it seemed as though the Kiwis had discovered a hidden chapter in the rugby manual and were now stunning the world with this secret knowledge.

A sharp contrast to this was the lacklustre brand of rugby which was being played on the southern tip of Africa, a brand of rugby where games were ground out and victories came mostly won by the boot. Fears were growing in South Africa that our teams would not be able to compete with the 7-point scores of the Kiwi sides if we were only moving up in increments of 3. However, something happened this past weekend that still has us stunned.

The first shock of the weekend came in the form of the Cheetahs where the young fly half Johan Goosen showed a superb return to kicking form and hints of what a great Bok flyhalf he will be one day. Cheetahs rugby in South Africa has always been a style of running rugby where the opposition find themselves chasing shadows more often than not. However, their let-down has usually been their defense. This time however they seemed composed, committed and very patient on their defense, thus allowing them to score off the mistakes of the Highlanders. With a final score of 36–19, this should be the confidence booster that they need for the rest of the campaign.

Stormers vs Lions 2011-02-28

Bryan Habana and his Stormers teammates had a 36-34 win over the Chiefs. (c) Paul Barnard.

Down in Cape Town, the Stormers were to face the current SupeRugby champions, the Chiefs, who were coming into the game with two wins compared to the Stormers zero, after having lost to the Bulls in Pretoria and the Sharks in Durban. Although the Stormers were expected to win in Newlands their ability to score tries was in question, having only scored 2 in 160 minutes of rugby.  They managed to hold on to a two point lead of 36–34 against the champions.

After a dismal showing against the Western Force last week, the Blue Bulls coach Frans Ludeke made wholesale changes which saw seven new faces in the starting line up to face the Blues in what is known as the Garden of Eden. This strategy worked as it saw the Bulls record their first ever win in Auckland with a 28–21 final score line and a game which saw Pierre Spies returning to form.

I had previously written about The State of South African Rugby and expressed my concerns. It may still be too early to get overly excited about the Springbok results from this past weekend as the competition is a marathon rather than a sprint. I do however take encouragement to see that we can take on the “world’s best” and beat them. Let’s hope that this will translate into a Rugby Championship trophy for the Green and Gold.

How do you think the South African teams will fare in this season’s competition? Feel free to leave a comment below with your views on their strengths, weaknesses and the SA players who have impressed you so far!

You can follow Nsovo Shimange on Twitter @NSOVOworksHARD.

Early Days…

Six Nations

The 2013 version of the Six Nations threw up an incredibly exciting first weekend, with Italy’s shock win over France the clear highlight. An opening day loss for the tournament favourites has thrown the Championship wide open. Meanwhile, Ireland and England recorded impressive victories to get that all-important momentum rolling. Next Sunday may end the hopes of one of the two. What follows are just a few thoughts on how things have unfolded so far for the teams apart from Ireland. Feel free to comment below with any of your own!

Personally, I expected a strong statement of intent from the French on Saturday, but the loss makes sense when you look back at their build-up to the tournament. Bernard Jackman highlighted several of the problems during his excellent slot on Monday’s Off the Ball, particularly how wrong Phillipe Saint-André had gone with his approach. The French coach basically pre-excused his players for the loss, continually emphasizing that they were fatigued, as well as how little time he had had with the squad since their impressive November series. Regardless of whether his assertions have a basis (something I’ll look at in more depth next week), it was the wrong thing to be saying in the media.

To be fair, the French performance was tired-looking. They still tried to get off the defensive line at speed, but they never won the physical collisions. That was illustrated by the manner in which Italy managed to get their razor-sharp offload game going. The most stark example was when Orquera (78kg) got his hands through a double tackle from Picamoles  (113kg) and Ouedraogo (102kg) for the Castrogiovanni try. That’s not to take anything away from Jacques Brunel’s team, who were exciting and brave in attack. They will travel to Murrayfield expecting a win.

Saint-André has made two changes to his starting XV, Suta in for the injured Pape and Bastareaud replacing Fritz. The Toulon man adds serious bosh-factor but has defensive positioning and awareness problems. Still, it should be a bone-jarring battle in the centre between France and Wales on Saturday. Directly across from Bastareaud will be a man with big problems of his own, JJV Davies.

I felt that the individual performances of Davies and the Sam Warburton neatly summed up the Welsh performance last weekend, particularly in the first half. Davies had possibly the worst game of his career, utterly lacking in confidence. Whatever about the poor passing (he’s never been the most skillful centre), the fact that he was losing physical collisions to the likes of Craig Gilroy spoke volumes. After a run of 8 losses in a Welsh jersey, the confidence just wasn’t there.

Similarly, Sam Warburton’s confidence has fallen off a cliff since the Grand Slam win. A run of bad games has turned into a crisis and he needs to focus on his mental game. At least twice in the first half vs. Ireland, Warburton was in prime positions for steals at the breakdown, but just didn’t have the confidence to put his hands on the ball. A year ago he would have had the ball snapped up and away in that split second where he’s now staring at the ball. Regardless of whether or not Warburton is actually injured, Wales have done the right thing by starting the sensationally in-form Justin Tipuric at openside this weekend.

England roll into Dublin for Sunday’s game on the back of a four-try win against Scotland. As expected, they looked physically powerful and in control at all times. Farrell’s place-kicking is becoming such a reliable weapon for them that simply overpowering the opposition and taking points is the tempting option. However, the introduction of Billy Twelvetrees adds something different. Without getting ahead of myself, he looks a genuinely complete centre and is just great to watch. He’s a big lad and can carry well, but his vision and distribution add so much more than the Barritt/Tuilagi combo offers.

We’ve another fascinating weekend ahead of us and it’s impossible to say where this Championship is going to end up. Leave a comment below with your views on the other teams in the Six Nations and what you expect this weekend…

Bienvenue Jonny!

Sexton

Sexton will be doing this in a lighter blue next season. (c) Linda Molloy.

While archaic French rugby laws mean that clubs can’t announce signings for next season until April, Jonny Sexton to Racing Métro 92 is one deal that we know is done and dusted. Club president Jacky Lorenzetti has distanced himself from the move a little over-exuberantly perhaps but we know that Sexton will be playing in France next season. So what should he expect?

Racing’s origins stem back to 1890 when a rugby section was added to Le Racing Club de France, originally set up as an athletics club. Their first Bouclier de Brennus came just two years later and the club had an extremely successful early period, winning another two national titles in that era.  A barren spell followed, with just one title coming in 1959, until the late ’80s, when a group of talented players led Racing back to the forefront of the French game.

The self-entitled Le Show Bizz was a gang of five Racing players who decided to combine serious rugby with a renewed sense of fun. Stunts like wearing berets for an entire match, donning pink bow ties on the field and painting their faces black before games were commonplace. Le Show Bizz were a sensation, even going on to release a pop single (so bad it’s worth a watch) and set up the Eden Park clothing brand. On the pitch, they were just as incroyable, winning the club’s most recent French title in 1990. (Check out this fascinating article by Le Rugby for more on Le Show Bizz).

The loss of that generation resulted in a downward spiral for Racing, and they fell out of the spotlight down in Pro D2 until 2006, when billionaire Jacky Lorenzetti decided to return the club to its former glories. Lorenzetti, who made his money in real estate through his Foncia firm, bought a 61% stake in the club and announced that they would be in the Heineken Cup by 2011. After heavy  investment from their new owner, the 08/09 season saw Racing, led by Andrew Mehrtens, finish top of the pile in Pro D2.

Chabal

Before the Sexton signing, Sebastian Chabal was possibly Racing’s biggest transfer coup. (c) Christophe Cussat-Blanc.

With big money spent on the likes of Francois Steyn, Lionel Nallet and the mythical Sebastian Chabal, Racing finished a creditable 6th in their first season back in the Top 14. Even better followed the next season, with a 2nd-place regular season finish, and a last-gasp semi-final defeat to Montpellier. Last season, another positive 6th-place secured more Heineken Cup rugby for the Parisien club.

Which brings us to the current campaign under head coach Gonzalo Quesada. At the outset of the season, Lorenzetti stressed the importance of stability after the club’s rapid rise. He said the club “remains ambitious, but we don’t have defined goals”. Both he and Quesada spoke about instilling a strong spirit and identity within the club. Unfortunately, these seemingly sensible intentions appear to have had the opposite effect. While it’s far from a disastrous campaign, Racing sit 8th in the Top 14 (7 points off the playoff positions) and were knocked out at the pool stages of the H-Cup.

Despite the arrivals of big names like Dimitri Szarzewski, Luc Ducalcon and Maxime Machenaud, Racing appear to be lacking in any real leadership at the moment. Despite Lorenzetti’s hopes, Racing find themselves at something of a crossroads, still lacking a clear identity. This is expressed in the inconsistency which has seen them beat Toulon away, but lose at home to Mont de Marsan. Lorenzetti has recognised that Racing need to get their momentum back next season, with his recruitment drive the most obvious sign.

The signing of Sexton will give Racing a clear leader on the pitch next year. This season, with Jonathan Wisniewski having missed much of the action through injury, Olly Barkley and Mathieu Belie have shared the number 10 jersey, with neither of them nailing it down. Sexton’s confident leadership skills are exactly what Racing needed to secure. The aforementioned laws on announcing signings ahead of April means that we can’t know for 100% who else Racing have signed, but it looks almost certain that Sexton will have Jamie Roberts playing outside him.

Stade Toulousain - Racing Métro

The 2010/11 season saw Racing reach the Top 14 semi-finals, so far the peak of the club’s achievements under Lorenzetti. (c) Frederic Salein.

In a league where scrum is king, the signings of Northampton props Brian Mujati and Sione Tonga’uiha should give Metro the platform for Sexton to unleash his backs. Springbok second-row Juandre Kruger is another who will be joining next season. In the back-row, Dan Lydiate is rumoured to have agreed a deal. If Lorenzetti has indeed added these world-class players to the existing quality in the likes of Machenaud, Szarzewski, Juan Martin ‘El Mago’ Fernandez, Benjamin Fall and Juan Imhoff, then Racing are going to be a seriously strong side next season.

Off the pitch, the president secured the future services of Castres’ current coaching duo Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers as early as last summer.  Both coaches enjoyed respectable playing careers; Labit, a fullback, played for France A, while Travers, a hooker, won the Heineken Cup with Brive in 1997. Upon retiring, the pair became co-entraineurs at Montauban, then in Pro D2. Within two seasons, Labit and Travers had the Southern club back in the Top 14. Another two season later, the coaching duo had led Montauban to Heineken Cup qualification for the first time in its history.

Castres swooped for the promising coaching team in 2009, and they have steadily improved the side over the last 3 seasons, making the play-offs each year and reaching the semi-final stage last season. The 44-year-olds are highly rated in France, and signing them as a team was a sensible move on Lorenzetti’s part. He will hope the undeniable success of the pair continues in Paris.

A further statement of Racing’s ambitions off the pitch is the planned new stadium in Paris. Les Ciels et Blancs currently play in Stade Yves-du-Manoir, with a capacity of 14,000. It’s a stadium with huge history, but in its current state doesn’t really befit a club of Racing’s ambitions. Construction on the new 40,000 seater stade, named Arena 92, is set to commence soon. Originally planned to be completed in 2014, Lorenzetti has pushed that date back to the end of 2015 due to repeated resident protests, as well as rising costs. When the stadium is eventually built in the Nanterre arrondissement, it will be a stunning home. 

Nearby, in Le Plessis-Robinson, the club recently opened a world-class training facility. It’s a truly cutting edge training base, with comprehensive recovery, analysis and strength/conditioning areas. It looks like the kind of place that would be a joy to work and train in. Check out the video below for the full guided tour from Racing’s manager Pierre Berbizier.

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All in all, it’s an overwhelmingly impressive package and you can see the obvious draw for Sexton, money aside. However, he really is the key to it all. Spending mega bucks and having the best stadium and training facilities count for nothing if you don’t have the right players on the pitch. Sexton will be the focal point for the whole club over the next two seasons, and maybe even beyond. He will be the man the coaches build their side around; a side which Lorenzetti hopes will create a whole new Show-Bizz era. It’s a massively exciting project, and one that will be followed intently all over Ireland.

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Photos courtesy: Linda MolloyChristophe Cussat-BlancFrederic Salein.