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.
Photos courtesy: Linda Molloy, Christophe Cussat-Blanc, Frederic Salein.