Dan The Man arrives today. He was due in Paris on Tuesday but remained in New Zealand for the memorial service for the late, lamented Jonah Lomu. Too late obviously to be involved in tomorrow’s Top 14 duel with Toulouse, and I would think he will be short too for the visit to Pau next week. Thereafter, Racing have back-to-back Champions Cup games with Northampton. They’re the kind of games Carter’s been bought for.
Lest we forget, tomorrow’s Toulouse game will revert back to our Colombes ground. It was to be played at the Stade de France but recent events put paid to that prospect. Even with a limited capacity of 12,000 tomorrow, security will be extremely tight. Supporters have been told to arrive very early with their hands hanging. No rucksacks or liquids. Disturbing times.
We will go into the game on the back of our best rugby of the season at the Scarlets last week in the Champions Cup. For 40 minutes, no team in Europe would have lived with us. But we are still too much of a yo-yo team. The likes of Toulon have the medals in the bank. Racing has done nothing. We’ve got to keep our heads down now. Falling in love with ourselves after one game ain’t good.
Carter will get introduced to the crowd at half-time tomorrow. Racing 92 have had many big names in the dressing room, but this is the biggest. There’s a giddy excitement, but there’s a bit too of ‘Dan Will Fix It’ about things. Players talk and there’s idle gossip about his salary and earnings, but a lot of his income potential will be derived from image rights and endorsement. He is the type of global superstar who can command big numbers so it’s important the other players realise a lot of his money will come from off-field stuff. The boss man, Jacky Lorenzetti, has got an unbelievable deal in many respects, getting Carter the rugby player. He is not paying him for his marketing capabilities. Salary-wise, Dan will be on broadly the same terms as Racing’s previous biggest earner, but off the field, his face will adorn a lot of ad and marketing campaigns. More luck to him.
The signing of Carter is a change in emphasis by the club here. Racing have been disappointed too often by players coming from the home nations. They’d be sour with many of them for putting their countries first. I see both sides of this debate. The club pays the wages. I would be very surprised if any current international is signed by Racing 92 in the next three years. You have to be coming to the end of your career or be prepared to take a big cheque and not play for your country to come to this part of Paris from now on.
Nearly two seasons in, Racing are piecing together a pretty formidable squad. A deep one too. It’s a different psyche here, and something I am now acclimatised to, in terms of squad rotation. At home, with Munster or Leinster, there is essentially a first team that doesn’t change substantially from week to week. And that presents its own problems, obviously. What’s different here is that you’ve 40 players, and it’s very much horses for courses, so selections change frequently.
In Ireland, a fella can get dropped. In France there really isn’t such a thing — at least until you reach the business end of a big competition like the Top 14 or Champions Cup. There is now a big emphasis on rotation in the Top 14, which is a big strength of French rugby.
If you get a backline featuring Mike Phillips, Dan Carter, Casey Laulala and Joe Rokocoko speaking the same language, that works. But then you could have Maxime Machenaud, Remi Tales, Henry Chavancy and Alexandre Dumoulin speaking French. Working in a backline that speaks your native tongue gives an incoming player the opportunity to ease his way into things.
There will be expectations on Carter, but I hope there won’t be an overreliance. The game is still won and lost up front. The backs put a bit of a gloss on it. That’s why the loss of Luke Charteris to Bath at the end of this season will materially influence our success or otherwise as much as the arrival of Dan Carter. Charteris is going to be a mammoth loss. Someone like him is irreplaceable.
But with Carter coming in, I’m looking forward to tapping into one of the best best brains, playing-wise, in the game. That we play in the same position is neither here nor there. I’m there if he needs me, though I doubt he will. It should be intriguing to watch what he puts his emphasis on Monday to Friday, what he considers important, what does he think of our game plans. Dan is in the key position on the pitch in terms of managing the game. It should benefit my learning curve too in coaching terms to be working side by side with one of the best (or as Steve Hansen described him, the second greatest) All Blacks in history.
It’s odd for me, but this club and Paris is beginning to grow on me, somewhere I could get attached to. That’s why the last two weeks sort of shook me to the core. And why I thinking like this now, taking stock almost. A South African guy, an agent, said he was reading my column last week and reckoned I was getting ready to pack the bags. Au contraire. It set off a train of thought, for sure, but professionally, the Top 14 is where it’s at.
I’ll always be for Munster, of Munster, but I won’t be going near it anytime soon. The best rugby players are over here now. Without a doubt, I am in France for a good few years yet. There were times in my first season where the grass still looked very green at home, but this year I am thinking differently. When I have moments to reflect, I can see the amount of learning still in front of me.
Dan the Man is just arriving, but I’ve my own decision to make at the end of the season, and the thinking for that starts in December or January in terms of a contract extension with Racing — or moving on elsewhere here in France. I’m a lot more likely to move within France than back to Ireland. There was some rubbish report around this week of me going back as the Ireland defence coach, which contains about 0.00% truth in it.
Rugby-wise, the Top 14 is where it’s at. Of course, the other half of my life must be good here too. Jess is the woman keeping the show on the road, but she’s settled. Or was up to the last week or two.
For sure, the season here is mentally taxing. After Toulouse, we go to Pau, then Northampton home and away, then Clermont and Montpellier in the Top 14. I might get home for two or three days at Christmas. But the mental slog is countered by the fact that I am not the head coach, and I’ve come to accept that my impact is incremental. I can’t really impose drastic change. Consequently, I’ve become a lot more chilled. Last season, I was like a caged animal for a while, but it’s wasted energy.
The quality of player at Racing is very good, so you get challenged as a coach. They’ll stop you and say ‘maybe we could do it this way’ and you have that good debate.
And I like a good old debate, don’t I...!