To shamelessly open with a sporting cliche, Racing 92’s season so far has been a tale of two halves.
There was the first half — when key players were on World Cup duty.
From the outside looking in, things didn’t look exactly healthy.
Racing lost two and drew one of their opening four matches at home, something TOP14 legend and lore says teams should not do.
Sporting director Laurent Travers, shorn of long-term cohort Laurent Labit, now part of the French national set-up, looked a little lost under the entire weight of the club’s great expectations, and with results not going their way Racing flirted with the wrong end of the table.
After eight weeks, they were second from bottom, with 13 points and just two wins to their name, and facing the odd prospect of a derby against Stade Francais todecide which of the two Paris sides — 2015 and 2016 French champions — would head into the first European fortnight at the foot of the table.
That was then.
This, seven wins, a draw and another home defeat later, is now.
In Europe, Racing have beaten Ospreys, twice, and Saracens, and headed home from Munster with a draw to sit six points clear at the top of Pool 4.
In France, they have won at Stade Francais and Brive,and bested Clermont and Montpellier at home.
Their only blip, a 34-30 reverse at La Defense Arena against a high-flying Bordeaux on November 30.
That was the last game they have lost in any competition.
Their TOP14 run has garnered them 19 points out of a possible 25, and seen them climb from 13th to fifth in five matches.
Players returning from the World Cup obviously helped Racing’s cause — no side loses players the calibre of Virimi Vakatawa, Finn Russell, Camille Chat, Bernard Le Roux, Leone Nakarawa, or Maxime Machenaud without feeling the hit.
But there’s more to the Franciliens’ resilience than waiting for the talent to come back.
Besides, they still had the likes of Teddy Iribaren, Teddy Thomas, Anthonie Claassen, Henry Chanvancy, and Juan Imhoff to call on, while giving 10 or 12 fringe and young players a taste of top-flight experience.
During their early brush with the TOP14 relegation zone, and despite that early season frailty at home, Racing showed no outward signs of concern. Rather the opposite, as new assistant coach Mike Prendergast revealed before the thrilling 21-21 draw at Thomond.
“There was never any panic,” he said of Racing’s TOP14 form in the lead up to the first Munster game, which came a week after from their 30-10 home win over a thoroughly distracted Saracens.
“We were going in onMondays and looking at the video to see where we could do things better — but there were an awful lot of positives. We just needed to improve a few things. Step by step we’ve been doing that.”
There were no ‘We need you’ calls for fan support, as is common among TOP14 teams struggling for survival, more an understanding that these hard times, too, would pass.
Even after the defeat against Bordeaux, which could have derailed the current run before it got going, sparked no great drama.
Travers declared the race for the top two ‘dead’, with Bordeaux and Lyon well clear of the chasing pack.
But hooker Camille Chat reminded reporters: “We’re in the race for points to catch the six, and we try to pull towards that every weekend.”
And reaction to the win at Brive, the first by any visiting side since May 2018, proved the point. Euphoria was effectively banned.
Travers recognised theimportance of the win, but looked well into the future, beyond the next game, that so many managers pretend they’re just looking towards.
“We have 14 games left,” he said after the match. “We have to win eight of them to be in the play-offs. We must not get carried away —we must stay the course.”
That realism is par for the course at the club these days. But it’s relatively new.
Rewind just four years.
In 2016, Racing were wide-eyed innocents in Lyon as Owen Farrell kicked Saracens to an all-too-easy Champions Cup victory.
Two years later, against Leinster in Bilbao, European defeat was harder to swallow for a much harder, flint-eyed side.
As Dan Carter, who joined the club after the 2015 World Cup, bade farewell to Racing a few weeks after the 2018 disappointment, told ESPN: “We were honestly happy to be in the 2016 final. It was further than the club had gone [before].
“It was very different [in 2018]. We knew we could have won it, rather than a couple of years previously, when we were beaten by a much better team. All the players were ... gutted about how close we got.”
Gutted, but not broken. That’s the important point. Even last year’s one-point quarter-final exit at home to 14-player Toulouse was used as a learning exercise at the club’s Plessis-Robinson training ground.
And now,with two pool games to play, Racing are a result away from the last eight of the Champions Cup. They’re looking for another home quarter-final.
At the same time, they’ll want to send a message to their TOP14 rivals.