Lionel Nallet talks to Ian Moriarty about Racing Metro’s ambitions in their first Heineken Cup.
IT SEEMS almost unthinkable that we've ploughed through 15 years of Heineken Cup rugby without once having the pleasure of one of the most famous clubs of them all; Racing Club de France - now known as Racing Metro since a merger in 2006.
Despite a history sprinkled with greatness the professional era, until recently, ignored them. Now back in the big time and at the summit of the Top 14, Racing have taken what had belonged to Stade Francais - the mantle of Paris' greatest club - and have grand aspirations in Europe.
“Our priority is not necessarily the Top 14”, says captain and France international Lionel Nallet, (top) whose move from Castres last season was seen as a statement of intent from Racing. “We will attack the Heineken Cup with the players who are in the best form at the time. If you want to judge and compare yourself against the best in Europe, there's no point if you don't do it properly.”
Long regarded as the doyen of French rugby clubs, Racing have been effectively reborn in the last three years under the stewardship of millionaire owner Jacky Lorenzetti and coach Pierre Berbizier. In that time, the club's roster has been rebuilt to rival and surpass their Parisian neighbours with names such as Springbok Francois Steyn, Argentine Juan Hernandez and of course, the hirsute French lock Sebastian Chabal.
Unlike their Parisian neighbours however, there's more to Racing than Can-Can dancers and bags of swag. If there was ever one club that symbolised the pomp, sophistication and chic of French rugby in amateur times, Racing Club de France was it. The club, founded in the late 19th century for Paris' élite, spent most of the 20th century yo-yoing up and down the French leagues before returning with a bang in the 1980s and carrying off a league title in 1990. They became best known in that era however for their on-field antics, such as wearing pink bow-ties during a French final against Toulon in 1987. The instigator, the great Franck Mesnel, along with Jean-Baptiste Lafond, would go on to launch the Eden Park clothing chain.
Nallet admits he didn't move to Paris for ‘le showbiz’. Under Berbizier, Racing have acquired a reputation for being tough as nails up front and deadly accurate behind the scrum. It's for that reason that Nallet left the comfort of the Tarn et Garonne for the bright lights of Paris.
“I met with Jacky Lorenzetti and Pierre Berbizier and they explained their project which I was completely seduced by. They've got a fabulous history not just in rugby but in athletics too. There's a real desire here to create something durable and to get back to where they were before.
“One of the main strong points is the club is its history,” adds Nallet. “The president and the staff have an ambitious plan in mind and the players are totally behind the plans and ideas. There's a lot of ambition in the team.”
With a trip to Leinster first up, Racing and Nallet will have plenty of opportunity to test that ambition. He is wary of a team that tormented him when he was with Castres and watched with interest last weekend as they finally kicked off their season with that win over Munster.
“It's tough playing them and you can't afford to fall asleep,” he admits. “They're a team that are used to playing at the highest level. If you turn up with a slight lack of structure or discipline, they have the side to punish you straight away. Other than that, it'll be a match that'll be a pleasure to play and I'm really looking forward to it.”