Sexton attacks under the watchful eye of Laurent Labit at Racing Metro’s training centre in Plessis-Robinson. (c) Emilie Manchon.
Jonny Sexton completed his first week of training with Racing Metro today, having been omitted from the club’s opening friendly of the summer last night. The Ireland outhalf’s pre season schedule got underway on Monday, before an interview with Le Parisien, a popular daily newspaper, was published on Tuesday morning. Sexton took the chance to explain his reasons for joining Racing, as well as underlining that there was more to his decision to join the club than just the high wages on offer.
Racing had an open training session on Tuesday afternoon, which followed a more intense run-out behind closed doors earlier in the day. That afternoon, Sexton was involved in his first press conference as a Racing player, where he fielded questions about settling in Paris, his ambitions and his views on the Top 14. The remainder of the week involved a heavy pre season programme alongside fellow Lions Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate. Coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers wisely decided not to involve the trio in yesterday’s 14-6 loss to Toulon.
Sexton may play next Friday though, when Racing face Harlequins in a money-spinning exhibition game in Geneva. That contrasts greatly with how Mike Phillips is being eased in back at Bayonne. The Welshman is expected to miss the club’s first two Top 14 games, before re-entering the fray on the 31st of August against USAP. Conversely, Sexton is likely to be start Racing’s opening league fixture against Brive in La Rochelle on the 17th of this month. Racing have moved the game away from Paris due to the number of the locals who will still be on holidays.
Sexton is the type of player who likes to play as many games as possible, so he will have no problem being involved so soon after the Lions tour, but it could be five months down the line before he starts to feel the true effects of a relatively short break. That said, Racing president Jacky Lorenzetti isn’t paying Sexton to rest and in a year when the Top 14 will to be more competitive than ever, every single game is of importance.
Racing suffered defeat in their first game under the new coaching duo against Toulon, but that will cause no great concern. In what was a surprisingly hard-hitting encounter on the Mediterranean coast, the home side scored two penalty tries, with both converted by Jonny Wilkinson. Racing’s only response was two penalties from the boot of outhalf Jonathan Wisniewski. The Frenchman is a good option for les deux Laurents, but will almost certainly need to get used to playing back-up.
For Sexton, the first week is over. The hard work starts again on Monday and by this time next week we may have seen the 28-year-old in Racing’s sky blue and white jersey for the first time. The French adventure is underway and off to a good start.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.