Racing 92 are not France’s No. 1 contender in the Champions’ Cup for nothing. They have Dan Carter topping an array of All Blacks, Springboks, Pumas as well as a couple of durable Welsh Grand Slammers, and they have the peerless Ronan O’Gara.
Between them, they delivered another super-heavyweight declaration of intent in Paris yesterday afternoon, engulfing the Scarlets on such a scale that the Pro12 leaders suffered the worst beating taken by any Welsh club anywhere in Europe since Cardiff flew over the Bay of Biscay and shipped 75 points to Biarritz in 2002.
Racing might look as though they have everything but do not be dazzled by the global cast. What they haven’t got was clear to anyone trying to count the empty seats at what used to be Stade Colombes.
They don’t have a crowd. Jacky Lorenzetti has bought just about everything else but money still can’t buy the best team in France a following worthy of their status. What they don’t have is something that Munster, Leinster and Ulster take for granted.
For all Racing’s golden stardust, the average Parisian Jean-Claude hardly seems bothered. Racing’s average Top 14 gate this season works out at 7,823 which, in English soccer terms, would make them about the 54th best supported team in the Football League, below Millwall and Wigan Athletic but above Swindon Town, if only just.
Now Carter has never been one to shy away from challenges. The man for whom nothing has ever been too much trouble on the pitch, from the sheer perfection of his performance against the 2005 Lions in Wellington to dropping long-range World Cup-winning goals with virtually no backlift, is about to be tested as never before.
Winning the Champions’ Cup and the Top 14 will take some doing. Finding a crowd over the next few months may prove a lot tougher but Racing sorely need him to double up as a latter-day Pied Piper.
If Carter can’t work the oracle, nobody can. Support, or rather the lack of it, is a sore point, one which Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal turned into gleeful ammunition for a pre-Christmas jibe at Lorenzetti.
‘’We’ve got supporters who pay to come and watch our games,’’ Boudjellal said. “Racing have to pay their supporters to come along. It’s Lorenzetti’s only innovation.’’
Imagine how much thinner their support would have been had they not gone nine matches without losing. If it’s asking a lot of Carter, then maybe that’s why they’re paying him €1.3m a year...
Ref Barnes not pushed about aggro
The last known case of an international flanker pushing an international referee took place at Twickenham at the end of the 1996 English Cup final between Bath and Leicester.
Neil Back shoved Steve Lander over in response to the test official’s last-minute penalty try decision that cost the Tigers the cup. The player got six months for his trouble, six years before he endeared himself to Munster fans by slapping the ball out of Peter Stringer’s hands at an attacking scrum during the 2002 European final in Cardiff.
Back’s defence was he mistook Lander for his real target, Bath’s Andy Robinson, a claim that took some believing given the referee was wearing a distinctive polkadot jersey.
During the opening quarter of the Ospreys’ tie against Clermont, Vito Kolelishvili’s manhandling of Wayne Barnes was not a case of mistaken identity but a blatant attempt by the bearded Georgian to shove the English referee out of the way.
While Kolelishvili can expect to be cited and brought to justice on the basis his was a red-card offence, it ought not to detract from Barnes’s excellent reaction to a fraught scenario. With commendable sangfroid he told the offender: “If I’m standing in your way, just ask me to move.”
He could just as easily have kept shtum and brandished a red card. Kolelishvili’s remorseful handshake said everything about his relief that Barnes had chosen not to turn the drama into a crisis.
As a barrister in London, his areas of practice include bribery and corruption, serious and complex fraud, money laundering, asset forfeiture, tracing and confiscation. As a referee in Swansea on Friday night, he was big enough to turn the other cheek.
Ulster hoping to rely on a neighbourly favour
If Ireland’s provinces are to avoid obliteration from the last eight for the first time in a generation, the last one standing could do with a big cross-border favour from another.
Assuming they take all five points from Oyonnax in Belfast on Saturday, Ulster’s survival may depend on Leinster stopping Wasps two-and-a-bit hours later.
A distant second to Saracens again last Saturday, Ulster can finish with a maximum of 18 points. A double over Leinster will take Wasps to at least 19. Clermont and Stade Francais will also finish on 19 if they get try-bonus home wins over Bordeaux and Leicester. Northampton, still alive after last night’s win over Glasgow, will also rack up 19 if they make the most of the Scarlet chopping blocks in Wales on Saturday.
By then, Leinster may not be the only triple champions to have been counted out.
Toulon will suffer the same fate if they lose at Bath, a trip the holders will make in a high state of anxiety given it took them until 35 seconds into stoppage time to win a stay of execution yesterday and leave Derek Richardson wondering what might have been.
Wasps, a growing force under their Irish saviour, came from behind only to suffer the anguish of an anti-climactic finale just as they were about to smash Toulon’s home European streak of 20 straight home wins. Ospreys will guarantee Welsh, and Pro 12 presence provided they beat Exeter in Devon on Sunday.
How they stand:
1 Saracens (24pts). 2 Leicester (23pts). 3 Racing 92 (22pts). 4 Ospreys (16pts). 5 Toulon (16pts). 6 Wasps (15pts). 7 Stade Francais (14pts). 8 Clermont (14pts). Also in the running: Northampton (14pts), Ulster (13pts).
Ospreys are ahead of Toulon on aggregate points difference and tries scored. Stade Francais are above Clermont for the same reasons.
Panning for new golden generation
Rory Molony is already one up on Paul O’Connell with a man-of-the-match performance in the second row on his European debut. In doing so, the 21-year-old Dubliner dropped a reminder that a new generation of Irish players are breaking through. Three more started for Leinster in the thumping home win over Bath — Peter Dooley (21) at loose-head, Luke McGrath (22) at scrum-half and the stylish Garry Ringrose (20) in midfield. Munster’s equally thumping home win over Stade Francais featured three young guns of their own — flanker Jack Donoghue, centre Rory Scannell (both 22) and loosehead Liam O’Connor, the youngest at 20.
Rebuke: Welsh referee Nigel Owens to George Smith as Wasps’ veteran Wallaby attempted to justify his yellow-card foul on Toulon’s Bryan Habana: “Are you refereeing this match or am I? Now listen….’’
Remembrance: ‘Nevin Spence always with us,’ emblazoned in large letters on an Ulster medic’s bag, in honour of the 22-year-old centre who perished along with his father Noel and brother Graham on the family farm in Co Down, in September 2012.