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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Photos: Pierre Selim, National Assembly for Wales.