T’S never 20 years already since we checked back into Merignac Airport in Bordeaux with that seminal 31-25 Heineken Cup win over Toulouse in our back pockets?
Imagine going to the La Defense Arena with Gaillimh and Claw. Wouldn’t that be brilliant?
In this column five years ago, I wrote about a young Racing 92 hooker, Camille Chat(pictured). This lad was a special one — a brilliant player and a freak of a competitor. He didn’t register on most radars because at international level, fellow hooker Guilhem Guarado was the French captain and an 80-capper in Dmitri Szarzewski was also in front of him for club and country.
He had one other issue — his darts weren’t great. For a hooker, that’s a serious Achilles heel. We were looking then at a brilliant rugby player but an average hooker, which is not a good combination when so much of the job is launching your set piece attack.
At this stage, enter Donnacha Ryan, the Nenagh guardian. What a signing he has been for Racing.
Even now the club has a lot of exciting Under-20 talent coming through and Donnacha’s knowledge is empowering those young lads. Camille Chat was one of his early successes in that regard. He took the young hooker under his wing, working on his throwing, lineout calls, and movements and feeding into him as much knowledge as he could. Which was a lot. A fun video was doing the rounds last week comparing Camille to Usain Bolt. The odd thing is that his pace isn’t even his greatest attribute.
He’s still only 24 and he is so abrasive.
While the Racing backline is juicy — it will probably be Dulin, Thomas, Vakatawa, Chavancy, Imhoff, Russell, and Iribaren — there’s a few wily old birds in the pack too. Former Chief, Dominic Bird has really hit his stripes in the last couple of games and is a serious operator.
In the back row, they will go with Bernard Le Roux, Wen Lauret, and either Boris Palu, a young lad called into the French squad this week or Baptiste Chouzenoux, who is excellent in the lineout. Whatever the configuration, there are strong options.
Ryan wasn’t the only shrewd recruitment at my old club. The former Toulouse flanker Yannick Nyanga finished his playing career at Racing 92 and he was then made sporting director.
He would have been a mentor to winger Teddy Thomas, a winger of mercurial abilities as his try against Clermont showed last weekend. His challenge was to bring consistency into his game and Nyanga has helped him in that regard, explaining he needed to be as good in defence as attack to be an all-round world class player.
But Virimi Vakatawa may top them all. He is an extraordinarily good player. With a little rocket up his ass, he could be the best in the world. Given his World Cup exploits in Japan, it’s ludicrous that he wouldn’t even have been on the plane only for the injury to La Rochelle’s Geoffrey Doumayrou.
Then again, that’s France. I was only starting out as a coach with Racing the year he came back for pre-season from Fiji with a pot belly on him. Yet after six weeks of fitness training, it was like someone took a bicycle pump and inflated him.
Fijian genetics are incredible. He’s the sort who looks at a weight and gets bigger.