Tag Archives: New Signings

Top 14 Preview: Racing Metro

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The History

Racing Metro 92 was originally founded as an athletics club in 1882. Their list of honours includes five French championships (1892, 1900, 1902, 1959 and 1990), a Pro D2 title (2009), and one Coupe de l’Espérance (1918). For more on the club’s history, including the legendary Le Show Bizz generation, have a read of this article which featured on The Touchline back in February.

The Setting

Part of Jacky Lorenzetti’s ambitious plans for Racing include the building of a brand new stadium in Paris. However, construction work on the 40,000-seater Arena 92 has been continually delayed due to protests and funding issues. It now looks like work will start early in 2014, with the aim of being complete in late 2016. Racing’s current home is the 14,000-capacity Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir, known simply as Colombes to local supporters.

While there’s lots of history at Colombes, it is not the most attractive of stadiums, with the running track around the pitch an unwelcome feature. Lorenzetti likes to relocate some of les ciels et blancs home games, their first fixture of this Top 14 season being a prime example. With many Parisians still on holiday in mid-August, the home tie against Brive will be played in La Rochelle. Additionally, Racing’s H Cup fixture against Harlequins in round three will take place in Nantes’ Stade de la Beaujoire.

Last Season

Racing

A nine-game winning streak in the second half of the season helped Racing to sixth place in the Top 14 regular season table, before they lost to Toulouse in the play-offs. (c) Emilie Manchon.

Under Gonzalo Quesada les Racingmen had a rocky start to last season, before finishing strongly in sixth to qualify for the barrages phase of the play-offs. The return of outhalf Jonathan Wisniewski at the turn of the year launched Racing on a nine-game winning streak. In the play-off game Racing never truly looked like beating Toulouse, losing 33-19. The Parisians had trouble scoring tries all season, with their total of 32 the third-lowest in the league. The sheer firepower they have brought on board should be enough to remedy that.

Realistically, making assumptions about Racing based on last season would be foolish with so many new players involved, as well as the new coaching team.

Ambitions

Trophies, trophies, trophies. After six years of building the club into Top 14 mainstays under Pierre Berbizier and Quesada, it is time for Racing to start competing for silverware. The Parisians’ budget is now in line with the likes of Toulon and Clermont in the region of €27 million, allowing them to recruit spectacularly this summer. Lorenzetti understands that les deux Laurents need time to combine the ingredients into a championship-winning side, but he will also expect the club to compete in the Top 14 and Heineken Cup this season.

The Coaches

Laurents

Travers (left) and Labit have not encountered anything approaching failure in their shared coaching career so far. (c) Emilie Manchon.

Laurent Travers was a hooker with Brive when they won the Heineken Cup in 1997, while Laurent Labit was a fullback for Castres’ championship-winning side in 1993. The pair first came together at Montauban in 2004, leading the club from the Pro D2 to H Cup qualification in just four seasons. Castres signed them in 2009 after finishing in 12th the season before. Toto and Lolo‘s impact was superb as they made the play-offs in each of the fours years since, culminating in their shock Top 14 win last season.

The two Laurents have a reputation as being technically excellent and working closely with their players on specific rugby skills rather than simply selecting and motivating the team. Labit and Travers feel they work better as a duo as it allows them to interact with more of the squad on a day-to-day basis, while also giving the players two channels to communicate through. The new Racing coaches are very focused on the power of a strong group, which should work well with such a large number of new players.

Transfer Activity

La Star. (c) Emilie Manchon.

Racing have 15 new players in their squad this season, which is well balanced by the departure of 20. Jonny Sexton is obviously the star signing, but fellow Lions Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate aren’t far behind. Northampton’s propping duo of Brian Mujati and Sione Tonga’uiha are also part of the influx and may be the most important additions of all in a league where the scrum has a near-religious importance. Springbok second-row Juandré Kruger makes up the group of truly high-profile newcomers.

Beyond that, Racing have a new trio of French internationals in Adrien Planté, Marc Andreu and Wenceslas Lauret. Planté won his first two caps in June at the age of 28 after a slow-burning career on the wing for USAP. Andreu may not be the biggest winger, but his low centre of gravity and footwork make him a real try-scoring threat. He was part of Castres’ Top 14 success last season and has scored two tries in six French caps. Lauret joins from Biarritz, where the flanker had lost momentum after winning three international caps.

The remaining six new faces include back-up players like Georgian loosehead prop Davit Khinchagishvili from Brive and fullback Benjamin Lapeyre from Toulon, as well as some youthful promise in scrumhalf Laurent Magnaval.

Key Players

Szarzewski

Le Capitaine. (c) Emilie Manchon.

Dimitri Szarzewski is Racing’s captain despite only having joined at the start of last season from neighbours Stade Français. The 30-year-old hooker took over the leadership from Jacques Cronjé during the campaign after impressing with his work-rate and magnificent hair. At fullback, Juan Martín Hernández (31) is not the athlete he once was but ‘El Mago’ still has the vision and creativity that gave him that nickname. He will certainly look forward to playing outside the excellent passing of Sexton.

Scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud had a poor tour for France in New Zealand this summer, but remains important to Racing. The 24-year-old is surprisingly powerful for his size and at his best provides unfussy service to his outhalf. Perhaps the most impressive thing about les ciels et blancs‘ squad this season is its depth, giving the two Laurents the possibility to rotate their team and choose different players for varying tactical approaches.

Fijian no. 8 Sakiusa Matadigo is an intelligent player, whereas ex-captain Cronjé is all brawn. In midfield, Jamie Roberts’ explosiveness can be combined with the defensive leadership of Fabrice Estabenez or the energy of Henry Chavancy. Out wide, Andreu and Planté must compete with the magic feet of Juan Imhoff, the power of Benjamin Fall and the flair of Virimi Vakatawa. Behind Mujati and Tonga’uiha in the propping depth charts are French internationals Eddy Ben Arous and Luc Ducalcon, the experienced Khinchagishvili and one-time Munster man Julian Brugnaut.

Irish Connection

ROG and Sexton

The two lads have this one well under control. Allez Racing! (c) Emilie Manchon.

Sexton is the star attraction at Racing, and he looks made for the challenge. While it is true that French clubs approach play-off games conservatively, the regular season games are generally quite open. That will suit the Irish outhalf, who has so many talented players around him to conduct. As with any high-profile foreign player in France, the expectations on Sexton will be hugely demanding but the 28-year-old’s mental strength will allow him to overcome any teething problems.

Ronan O’Gara appears to be settling into his first coaching job with ease. His primary role is to work on kicking with Racing’s first team, but it is likely that he will also aid Labit in organising the backline. Kicking from hand is one of the weakest skills in the French game currently and O’Gara’s work in Paris will be closely followed by the other Top 14 clubs. For both Irishmen, an exciting and challenging season lies ahead.

Possible Starting XV

15. Hernandez, 14. Fall, 13. Chavancy, 12. Roberts, 11. Andreu, 10. Sexton, 9. Machenaud, 8. Matadigo, 7. Le Roux, 6. Lydiate, 5. Kruger, 4. Van der Merwe, 3. Mujati/Ducalcon, 2. Szarzewski, 1. Tonga’uiha/Ben Arous

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The excellent photos used with this article are all the copyrighted work of Emilie Manchon. You can see more of her photos of Racing on her Flickr page.

Racing Ready for Sexton

Picamoles, Johnston, Nyanga, Albacete, Burgess

Racing take on Toulouse in tomorrow night’s play-off. The Parisian outfit have lost both meetings with the current holders this season. (c) Pierre Selim.

In February, I wrote a piece detailing Racing Metro’s history and recent form. For anyone who’s not too up-to-date on how Racing have developed since billionaire Jacky Lorenzetti bought the club in 2006, it’s certainly worth starting there. In this article, I take a look at how Les Ciels et Blancs have fared in the second half of the current campaign.

Racing’s season up to the mid-way point hadn’t been particularly smooth sailing. Knocked out of the H Cup at the pool stages, and suffering from inconsistency, the Parisian club were 8th in the Top 14. One of the major problems in the first half of the season had been the lack of a leader in the outhalf position. Previous incumbent Jonathan Wisniewski had been struggling with injury, and neither medical joker Olly Barkley nor young hopeful Mathieu Belie could fill in convincingly in his absence.

However, the return of France ‘A’-capped Wisniewski at the turn of the year coincided with a huge surge in form. From the 30th of December, with a 40-6 win over Agen, right up until the end of March, Racing went on a nine-game winning streak. With Wisniewski back at 10, Gonzalo Quesada’s team finally clicked. The outhalf has been taking almost every point on offer, and Racing’s confidence was obvious to see in excellent wins at home against Clermont and away to Montpellier.

Olly Barkley

After arriving as a medical joker, Barkley struggled to make an impact. He has left the club and is now being heavily linked with Grenoble for next season. (c) Pierre Selim.

That winning run was ended dramatically by Toulouse, thanks to a Lionel Beauxis conversion with the last kick of the game. Regardless, Racing have qualified for the Top 14 play-offs. Last weekend’s win over Castres ensured Le Racing finished the regular season in 5th, just one point off 4th-placed Castres. What it all means is that Lorenzetti’s club visit Toulouse tomorrow night in the barrage phase of the play-offs. A semi-final against Toulon awaits the victor.

Regardless of what happens in the knock-out stages, Racing have qualified for next season’s Heineken Cup, which will certainly come as a relief to Jonny Sexton. A first year spent playing in the Amlin Challenge Cup would have been anti-climatic. For rugby fans worldwide, it means more excitement. While Racing’s transfer activity remains unconfirmed by the club itself, it appears that Lorenzetti has bankrolled a remarkable bunch of additions for next season.

Midi Olympique, the French rugby newspaper, is reporting the following players to Racing as done deals: Sexton, Springbok lock Juandre Kruger, Welsh internationals Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts, Northampton props Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga’uiha, France flanker Wenceslas Lauret, Castres wing Marc Andreu, and Perpignan wide man Adrien Planté. That’s all on top of the capture of Castres’ excellent coaching duo of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers.

Six Nations Player of the Tournament, Dan Lydiate. Wales Grand Slam Celebration, Senedd 19 March 2012 / Dan Lydiate, Prif Chwaraewr Pencampwriaeth y Chwe Gwlad, Dathliadau Camp Lawn Cymru, Senedd 19 Mawrth 2012

Wales and Lions blindside will be joining Sexton in Paris next season. (c) National Assembly for Wales.

Racing appear to be waiting until their playing season is over to officially announce the signings. These additions will elevate expectations at the club to levels matching the big boys of Clermont and Toulon. Alongside the big-name signings has been the announcement of contract extensions for Le Racing‘s high-quality young players. France scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud, home-grown centre Henry Chavancy, dynamic prop Eddy Ben Arous and flying winger Virimi Vakatawa are among the prolongations.

Fiji-born wide man Vakatawa has been a real discovery over the last two seasons for the Parisian club, scoring 4 tries in 7 starts in the league this year. Indeed, speculation is mounting that the 21-year-old will be capped by France in the near future. The FFR are apparently awaiting confirmation from the IRB on Vakatawa’s eligibility for their test series in New Zealand next month. Meanwhile, Ben Arous has provided ball-carrying impact off the bench this season, while Chavancy has looked like a French international in-the-making.

With the likes of über-skillful fullback Juan Martin ‘El Mago’ Hernàndez, Argentinian winger Juan Imhoff, and French international trio Dmitri Szarzewski, Luc Ducalcon and Benjamin Fall also contracted for next season, Racing’s squad is bursting with talent. Toulon and Clermont will continue to improve, but Lorenzetti’s money has closed the gap with alarming speed. New entraineurs Labit and Travers have all the tools they need to challenge domestically and in Europe. Sexton will be excited to be involved.

Juan Martin Hernandez

El Mago has shown sparks of his former genius this season. Sexton may be the man to re-ignite the magician’s undoubted talent. (c) Pierre Selim.

Elsewhere, the delays Racing were encountering in attempting to build their new stadium, just 700m from the Grande Arche de la Défense, have finally been countered. Last month, the final protest was withdrawn. Construction of Arena 92, originally scheduled for completion in 2014, should be finished by the end of 2015. The stunning plans include 32,00 seats for sporting events, 40,000 capacity for concerts, and 33,000 square metres of offices, shops and restaurants. Building costs are expected to total around €320 million. Meanwhile, the club’s recently opened world-class training facility is running smoothly.

All these parts make up the package that attracted Sexton to Racing Metro. Lorenzetti looks to have delivered on the player investment promises that helped him to lure Sexton to Paris. Under two of the most highly-rated coaches in France, Sexton will be expected to make this Racing side tick.

Foreign players in France are laden with massive expectations from fans, coaches and co-players. If things don’t go right, they’ll be the first to be blamed, as the likes of Mike Phillips and Joe Rokocoko at Bayone have found out. However, if things go according to plan, they can become idols and focal points for their clubs. Jonny Wilkinson is the most high-profile example. Sexton will be aiming to emulate, and better, the Toulon outhalf.

Move over Wilko, there’s a new king in town!

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Racing Metro take on Toulouse tomorrow night in what is essentially a Top 14 quarter-final. Kick-off is at 8.00pm Irish time. As far as I can see, the match isn’t live anywhere apart from Canal+, but Setanta usually show re-runs.

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Photos: Pierre Selim, National Assembly for Wales.