Racing’s vast resources are best illustrated by the options available to their management in the second row alone compared to Johann van Graan, writes Donal Lenihan.
Jacky Lorenzetti is a man who likes to deliver. Since becoming the principal benefactor at Racing 92, he has rarely failed on that front and the Parisian club has been transformed.
His goal is to make them financially self-sufficient when he finally steps away and part of that plan encompassed the development of a new multi-purpose domed stadium, the U Arena, with a capacity of 32,000 for rugby, increasing to 40,000 as an indoor concert venue. Built at a cost of €360m, it host’s a Champions Cup tie for the first time on Sunday when Munster visit the French capital.
A number of years ago Lorenzetti launched an audacious plan that included signing the sports leading player at the time in Dan Carter, along with the construction of a new home for the club given that the Stade Yves-Du-Manoir (or the Stade Colombes as it was known when it hosted the 1924 Olympic Games and France’s home games in the Five Nations Championship up to 1972) had long passed its sell-by date.
Lorenzetti had a vision. He would build an iconic theatre, open it with a ‘Rolling Stones’ concert on a Friday night followed the next day with a game between Racing 92 and world champions New Zealand. Carter would play a half for either side. Many said it just couldn’t be done — how could he dictate who New Zealand would pick — but the property mogul drove on regardless.
As we know, Carter is currently playing out his third and final season with the club, having been instrumental in their French Top 14 championship winning side two seasons ago, when they also reached the Champions Cup final before losing to Saracens in Lyon.
The ‘Rolling Stones’ did become the first band to perform at the U Arena last October, playing three concerts. And if you wondered why the All Blacks played a midweek game against a French XV, three days after meeting the full national side at the Stade de France last November, it was because the French Federation blocked the possibility of Steve Hansen’s men playing a French club side and took over the fixture.
Their president Bernard Laporte just wasn’t having it.
By way of compensation, the French Federation hosted Japan at the U Arena, a decision which backfired badly with poor ticket sales. Indeed France were very lucky to escape with a 23-23 draw when Japanese out half Yu Tamura missed a straightforward conversion to win the game. That result proved the final straw for Laporte and cost Guy Noves his job on the eve of the Six Nations.
For all the improvements made, Racing struggled to deliver consistency and have underperformed too often given the playing resources at their disposal.
This Sunday they meet Munster in a Champions Cup tie for the fourth time in 12 months and are still chasing a first win over the province since the side’s met in Paris in 2012 in the Heineken Cup.
Given Munster’s injury travails, this game offers their current squad a big opportunity to break that losing sequence. Their vast resources are best illustrated by the options available to their management in the second row alone compared to Johann van Graan.
Munster have had an unhealthy reliance on Billy Holland and Jean Kleyn to man that key area all season with Holland starting his 16th consecutive game against Ulster in Belfast recently. It was inevitable that he would pick up an injury at some stage and his departure from the field at Ravenhill was sorely felt.
There was some good news on that front however with two very decent performances from Darren O’Shea in consecutive 80-minute shifts against Ulster and Connacht in five days. In addition, former Racing 92 second row Gerbrandt Grobler is very close to playing his first game of the season.
Meanwhile Racing will probably start former Munster stalwart Donnacha Ryan on Sunday, given his inside knowledge of the workings of the visiting lineout, but his place is not guaranteed.
A certain starter with Munster, Ryan faces stiff competition in Paris from one of the games leading forwards in Fijian wizard Leone Nakarawa, Argentina’s Patricio Albacete and Manuel Carizza, French international Bernard Le Roux and former Toulouse bruiser Edwin Maka. That is the way it is when facing these cash rich French clubs but history tells us it guarantees them nothing.
Of more significance for me entering this contest is the consistent improvements behind the scrum with Munster’s attacking game this season to complement their set piece and work at the breakdown, which has always been of the highest quality.
Now they are assembling a back line that is beginning to fire. I am not sure if it has ever happened before - some rugby historian out there might like to clarify — but I can never recall a starting Munster back division made up entirely of Irish internationals as happened against Connacht last weekend.
What’s more, Simon Zebo, Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls, Ian Keatley and Conor Murray were all selected by Joe Schmidt at some stage in 2017 meaning they are all in top form and worthy of consideration by the national coach.
Attack coach Felix Jones deserves much credit for the improvements made in the quality of Munster’s passing, in their use of decoy runners and their creative ability off set piece plays. That coupled with the pace, stepping ability, aerial skills and work rate of that back three — Darren Sweetnam, another recently capped Irish international, and Alex Wootton also deserve honorable mention here — has added significantly to Munster’s attacking potency.
As with all sides, the ability to deliver in attack is totally reliant on the speed with which the ball is recycled from phase play, something Munster have been very good at in their key games this season. That requires a huge commitment and intensity in the contact area, which is difficult to deliver at every outing given the physical toll involved.
It was a factor in Munster’s disappointing showing in the opening 40 minutes against Leinster on St. Stephen’s Day when 14 of the side that started in the great win over Leicester at Welford Road were pressed into action once again. Leinster have such depth at present that they could afford to select only three of the starting team that defeated Exeter Chiefs the previous week for that Thomond Park derby. Incredibly 37 different Leinster players saw game time in their three inter-provincial clashes over the festive period, yet they accumulated 14 of the 15 points on offer.
Despite those defeats to Leinster and Ulster, Munster are in decent shape heading into the final two rounds of European action. That said, van Graan will be sweating on the availability of Holland and Chris Cloete, who has been magnificent recently, for Sunday’s clash.
Meanwhile, without a win in Pool 3 of the Champions Cup, high-flying Guinness PRO14 Conference A leaders Glasgow Warriors arrive at the RDS on Sunday with nothing to play for. That could work in one of two ways. They will either be relaxed and have a real cut without any pressure or will rest some key players and put up limited resistance. Either way, I expect Leinster to win.
Munster face the more difficult task with a second away Champions Cup clash on the bounce. If they can reproduce the intense work rate at the breakdown against Racing that saw off the Tigers in the back-to-back games in December, they too should have one foot in the quarter final’s of Europe by Sunday evening.
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