Racing certainty

THEIRS is a name synonymous with French rugby. Formed as a sporting club of many different disciplines for the Parisian elite in 1882, Racing Club de France, alongside Stade Francais, dominated the early years of the French Championship before disappearing — like Stade — for the bones of a century until the emergence of the bow-tie wearing and champagne guzzling side of Franck Mesnel, Eric Blanc and Jean-Baptiste Lafond in the late ’80s.

Racing certainty

They won their fifth French Championship title in 1990, before sinking back into relative obscurity thereafter.

While Stade Francais took to pro rugby in the ’90s like a duck to water — thanks to the largesse and marketing skills of Max Guazzini — Racing wilted, unsure of its place in a wholly different world. That was until 2006, when one Jacky Lorenzetti arrived on the scene. Fresh from selling his estate agency Foncia for €700m, Lorenzetti needed a new plaything and saw Racing, languishing near the bottom of Pro D2 and whose supporters numbered in hundreds rather than thousands, as his chance to have some fun.

Promotion from Pro D2 to the Top 14 followed within a few seasons, ironically at a time when their Parisian rivals were in decline. Today, while they might once have been the biggest team in France, Stade Francais are no longer even the biggest team in Paris.

“We hope to see the club continue to grow on and off the field,” says Quesada, who took over as coach from Pierre Berbizier in July. “The president has done a great job since the club came from Pro D2. He has offered players the best facilities to train and a new stadium soon so the players and coach have to do the job on the field now to keep Racing amongst the best teams in France and Europe.”

Quesada’s elevation in the coaching world has in some ways mirrored the meteoric rise of Racing’s. A fly-half by trade, he won the last of his 38 caps for Argentina against Ireland during the 2003 Rugby World Cup and did the rounds at Beziers, Stade Francais, Pau and Toulon before retiring and settling into the role of kicking coach with Marc Lièvremont’s XV de France in 2008.

By 2011, he was eager to move into club coaching and was offered the role of backs coach at Racing by Berbizier, following the departure of new Munster backs coach Simon Mannix. With the players up in arms at the sacking of Mannix, a hugely popular figure at the club, Lorenzetti acted decisively, moving his friend Berbizier upstairs (out of the players’ way) to become general manager and making Quesada head coach. Not surprisingly, the Argentinian is keen to put this behind him and he talks openly about new targets and learning from last season.

“Our ambition is to get out of the group,” he says. “We feel we’re in a better place now because we have a little more experience of the (Heineken Cup). We played well against London Irish and Edinburgh and I think Racing showed last year that it has the ability to do well in this competition.”

It’s never easy to know in advance just how seriously a French club will take the Heineken Cup. The French Championship remains, to all intents and purposes, the be-all and end-all but more and more French clubs are following Toulouse’s lead and adopting a dual focus to their season. With a turnover of €20m plus, Racing have the resources for both competitions, hence the disappointment with a European campaign last season that yielded just one win. Quesada claims this season will be different but he expects the pool to be especially tough going.

“No, we are going to get as far in both competitions as possible. When you start a competition like the H Cup, you can’t tell to your players ‘the priority is the Top 14, never mind the results in the Heineken Cup’.

“However, it is a very tough pool.We are with amongst the best in Europe. It’s very difficult to tell which team is going to finish top but Munster and Saracens would be favourites.”

Despite the refitting of the Munster rugby juggernaut being very much a work in progress, Quesada is still wary of the Irish province and what they will bring to the Stade de France on October 13. Yet he is particularly perturbed by problems in his own camp, namely an injury crisis at fly-half.

“Our fly-halves, Jonathan Wisniewski and Benjamin Dambielle, are out and for the first two matches and we will still be without our Argentinians, Juan Martin Hernandez and Juan Imhoff (on international duty).

“Don’t forget teams like Munster are hard to play in H Cup because it’s their main objective. They train and play domestic league to prepare for their H Cup games. In France, it’s different — we’ll see what happens.”

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox