RONAN O'GARA: In French rugby, the only thing bigger than the centres are the cheque books

It’s part of the gig. Meeting agents. There’s been quite a few in the past two weeks and I’m never sure whether I’m energised or anxious at the amount of money sloshing around in rugby.

Obviously, the arrival of Montpellier at the table means a lot of wealthy European clubs are being challenged to dig deeper in their pockets if they want to keep up.

This isn’t a faraway war for the IRFU either. In fairness to them, from what I can gather, they haven’t been behind the door in putting a very attractive offer on the table for Simon Zebo to stick with Munster.

Zebo’s a mark for a number of French clubs, only one of which, Pau, has stuck their heads above the parapet to date. There are others, but it would appear, from my understanding, that the IRFU has seen off the first of Zebo’s suitors.

Others will follow for sure. I am not sure how anyone believes the salary cap in the French Top 14 is being strictly adhered to, especially with the likes of Montpellier’s aggressive recruitment policy.

Where once the Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellah set the bar for extravagant spending and galactico recruitment, now a Syrian who grew up in the Bedouin camps, Mohed Altrad, is stocking his squad with the best and biggest names — from Louis Picamoles at eight through to Aaron Cruden at 10 — with former Ulster man Ruan Pienaar between them at scrum-half, for good measure.

You will see the Altrad logo on the French national team jersey this season, with the Montpellier owner having developed what appears an interesting relationship with FFR president Bernard Laporte.

There have been allegations of conflict of interest already between Altrad’s role as Montpellier owner and FFR sponsor, but from a purely rugby point of view, the club has certainly inflated the financial bubble around French rugby — and made a few more players millionaires in the process.

Our president at Racing 92, Jack Lorenzetti, is another who has ploughed serious investment into the club here in Paris.

Soon, you will savour what may be his greatest investment: The club’s new U Arena, which hosts the Rolling Stones next weekend in a spectacular opening concert.

Our first game there is a Top 14 meeting with Toulouse two days before Christmas. Without wishing to appear melodramatic, it will change the way you watch rugby. It is truly spectacular.

The emergence of Altrad demands a reaction from the likes of Boudjellah at Toulon, and he hasn’t been shy in meeting the challenge.

They have drafted in a superstar of Rugby League, Semi Radradra, on the wing, to augment the likes of Malakai Fekitoa, Bastareaud and Ma’a Nonu.

One thing is for certain, whatever about the biggest cheque books, French clubs certainly have the biggest specimens on the field of play. Size matters and you’d love to say that’s they are exceptional in the Top 14, but the truth is the skinny fellas are now the exception to the rule.

Anyone who believes that Toulon’s appetite for silverware has waned is oblivious to their ongoing recruitment.

One can imagine Chris Ashton thriving in European Cup competition down there, and I believe Hugo Bonneval from Stade Francais possibly suits their style of play more than Leigh Halfpenny did – the latter kicked the goals but they’re more a flair team in Europe, and Bonneval will complement the Bastareauds and Nonus.

They also have incredible talent on the wings, including Josua Tuisova, widely regarded as the best player in the Top 14. Consider Toulon’s wide options now: Ashton, Pietersen, Tuisova, Fekitoa and Bryan Habana.

Unquestionably Montpellier will challenge in this season’s Champions Cup. They are in a very tough pool, and there will be keen eyes on their opener tomorrow in Dublin.

Whether they have the collective mettle to go all the way this season is a key point.

If they played a series of games against a top province, such as Leinster, I’d say Leinster would prevail, but Montpellier’s capacity in a one-off game — presuming their key players are tuned in and interested — means they could be superior to anything over 80 minutes... even Saracens.

Montpellier now have the tools to beat anyone. How do you stop Nemani Nadolo on the left wing if they are 15 metres from the line, and in from the sideline? At 6’ 5” and 21-and-a-half stone, the reality is you‘d have to put two players on him.

Domestically, they lie second in the Top 14, they had five good rounds before being smashed 47-17 by Bordeaux and losing to Stade Francais.

However, with Vern Cotter, a manager with international credentials and a broad outlook, they are going to target the Champions Cup, for sure.

People may not see the value of a non-French manager at a Top 14 club for Europe’s elite competition, but any coach of a certain vintage, under 40, appreciates what the Heineken, and now Champions Cup, really means.

The reigning Bouclier champions, Clermont, are struggling this season. That’s not a surprise.

The club winning the Top 14 becomes the most handicapped outfit in Europe the next season on the basis that their winning campaign — and yes, celebrations — stretches on longer than anyone else’s. That eats into pre-season and, as Racing found to our cost, it’s bloody hard playing catch-up.

However, they will target Ospreys game on Sunday and eyeing the meetings with the side that defeated them in the final last time out, Saracens.

La Rochelle are a dark horse. They’re in a pool with Harlequins, Ulster and Wasps and, while they may struggle away from home, purely on the basis of naivete, at their own place, with their supporters, they will be a formidable proposition.

If you’re a rugby fan who enjoys a good atmosphere and a bit of local pride, then the Stade Marcel-Deflandre is the place to go.

La Rochelle has that lovely innocent newness about it, like Munster before 2000. It’s a new project, the town is behind them, every home game is sold out, you just feel like they have that special momentum going.

I’m the first to admit there’s a little extra pep in my step this week.

I am trying to drive everyone as hard as I can since Monday morning, maybe a little bit because of my own affinity with the European Cup, but primarily because of the disastrous European campaign Racing experienced last season.

If you have values and self-respect, you cannot do what we did last year in failing to win a game. It’s not okay, but understandable to do that once after winning something (as we had in the previous Top 14 final), it can happen, but if it happens twice, there’s something majorly wrong here.

Also, remember we have only won three out of seven games domestically this season.

We begin with the visit of Leicester before we head to Limerick a week tomorrow. It’s safe to say the next two weeks will make or break Racing 92’s season.

We have quality, but we need to start performing.

Losing to Lyon in the Top 14 after being 10-0 up was a killer, but confidence levels are less brittle than last season and excitement levels are quite high in the squad, which is fundamental with the mix of cultures we have. The coaching staff has emphasised that we have six cup finals in our pool, starting tomorrow.

Donnchadh Ryan is a loss at the moment. In truth, he’s still six to eight weeks away from returning. His experience and work rate would be a huge bonus, especially in Europe. His loss is compounded by the fact that Patricio Albacete is also recovering from a lengthy lay-off.

Our options in the backs are more plentiful, but you won’t see Johann Goosen any more with Le Ciel et Blanc.

Last I heard, he is working at a horse stud in South Africa, but, surprise, surprise, it has been reported his contract has been bought by an unknown third party. Where will he rock up next? It’s all about deep pockets these days…


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