No I haven’t walked the 200 feet of tunnel that reputedly leads from renowned London wine merchants Berry Brothers and Rudd to Buckingham Palace, but I am assured such a route exists, writes Ronan O’Gara.
The first time I met Racing 92’s president and owner, Jacky Lorenzetti, was at one of these sumptuous business lunches at the venerable cellars on St James Street, near The Mall in London. My hands were sweaty, my head all at sea.
I had barely stripped off the Munster jersey for the final time in Clermont when a French intermediary asked of my interest in moving to and coaching in Paris. If the price of a bottle of red seemed an indelicate subject to raise on the day with the owner of Racing 92, the terms and conditions on offer from my next employer was something I needed to pin down.
I could pretend all I was thinking was that Jacky Lorenzetti was there to smooth talk and spirit me away to Racing with a blank cheque, but I knew, as did Mr Lorenzetti, that he could have easily picked up 50 other Ronan O’Gara-types from around the world at that moment for his big rugby project. I mightn’t have known whether to take the Jubilee or the Bakerloo line to St James Street, but my mind was soon clear about my next move in rugby.
It was the morning that life back on Civvy Street ran me over. I was like a fish out of water, with no manager to tell me what polo shirt to wear, much less what Tube line to take to The Mall. What I had gleaned in advance of meeting a man with a personal fortune worth some €750million was his ambition to take Racing 92 to a new level.
A project he had eyed and acted on in 2006 when the club was still in the second division. And I knew too that with an influx of overseas galacticos coming to the club, the two head coaches, Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit could do with a bit of experience and English-speaking value into the mix.
For Jessica, the five kids and myself, it proved a wonderful decision, even if the private element of that meeting with Jacky in London extended to about five minutes – or whatever time it took to run through the contracts and shake hands for pictures. In many respects, it was an honour for me to be squeezed into that window with him on a day he was presumably more pre-occupied with a lucrative wine deal than with a coach for his rugby team.
I knew vaguely of plans to develop a state of the art arena in Paris, and that he had a reputation for getting what he wants. Jacky had already built Racing’s new training centre at Plessis-Robinson, anchoring it permanently in Paris’ inner suburbs.
At Plessis-Robinson, Lorenzetti has immediate reach to all his business interests and empire, which mushroomed from property successes in the 70’s when he set up the Foncia agency that would subsequently float on the French stock exchange. Now his expansive wine business, equity interests and rugby team successful co-habit in the same Haut-de-Seine complex. I spent most of my non-pitch hours on the first floor where the dressing rooms, gym and commercial team operates.
Overhead is the clubhouse and meeting rooms – one side is the rugby, the other is the equity and wine businesses. It’s a complex where suits and tracksuits seem to go hand-in-hand and as a place of work, there was always a good vibe from seeing the man who built it all around the place so frequently.
Of course, it demanded a change of perspective and an open mind going there, and for the O’Garas it was a brilliant five years. I am sure there are some in rugby who question that, who believe the Top 14 to be poor quality. However, I found it fascinating, and believe only those who live and breathe it by living there are properly positioned to judge. If you live in Brive now, for instance, the prospect of relegation from the Top 14 is all-consuming.
For starters, it will cost the local economy around €40million but it is so much more than that. The sense of belonging to something, that local pride, that goodwill towards the local team is something GAA people can instantly relate to. Where in villages like Newtownshandrum in North Cork, life’s conversations revolve around the local hurling team. In Brive, the natives walk taller as a Top 14 club.
Jacky Lorenzetti recognised that in a city like Paris, that sense of community would be impossible to tap into. What he presented instead was the pledge of sporting theatre Parisians would be proud of, with a team and facilities to match. He has never hidden the overriding fact that Racing 92 is a business, and that its incredible new home in Nanterre, the U Arena, is a business that will have to wash its face.
Last week, he copped some criticism for the decision to rent the Arena out to Beyonce and Jay Z for rehearsals ahead of the latest leg of their world tour. The upshot is that Racing will be unable to use their home ground for the final Top 14 game of the regular season against Agen and may not have it either in the likely event of a home play-off fixture.
Jacky was unapologetic. The U Arena isn’t a toy, he explained. It’s a living, breathing business and the profits from this lease will help finance Racing 92 going forward. Those Munster fans who have already been in the U Arena for the Champions Cup pool game will understand the man’s ambition to a greater degree now. It is bordering on a piece of art which opens its doors to giant rugby types. It is that good. Beyonce is using the facility because the acoustics and audio technology is without compare. Mr Lorenzetti only deals in the finest wines.
It is worth underlining just how good he is in comparison to other French club benefactors. Remember this is a one-man band forking out for everything. Jacky bankrolls the entire Racing 92 operation, so from that point of view, he is extremely patient and pleasant. He has massive faith in the two Laurents to run the rugby side of the business for him, which is in stark contrast to many of the egomaniac presidents who can’t stop themselves interfering in the rugby side of the game.
I must admit my gut initially was that he wanted to create all this and then move on from rugby, but his appetite this season and last seems as strong as ever. With the realisation of the U Arena, the obvious next chapter is conquering Europe. He wants silverware and winning the Bouclier made him tremendously proud for the fact that it returned the old royalty of French club rugby to their rightful place.
But every businessman or woman has a ruthless side, and the project must keep moving forward. It’s far removed from the club it was five years ago but Champions Cup success has eluded Jacky and Racing so far.
This season may be their best opportunity. With French Federation regulations limiting the number of overseas players in each squad going forward (the so-called JIFF rule), the club may take some time to collate again the depth of talent it has in the squad for this weekend’s semi-final in Bordeaux.
In the future, the Top 14 will largely comprise of French players with a sprinkling of rugby galacticos from around the world. Whether some of the signings coming to the Top 14 merit the title of galacticos is a moot point. I, for one, would question the credentials of some.
It’s a subject Mr Lorenzetti and I agreed on time and again —sacrificing standards is not an option. In truth, we got on famously and he and his wife Francoise, struck up an immediate affection for Jessica and interest in the five kids. Francoise is at the club training base every day too and is a real force of nature whose energy is boundless.
If, and when, we return to Paris, an engaging chat and a good dinner is guaranteed.
Jacky, I suspect, will look after the wine.
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