One of my most vivid rugby memories is the evening I sat perched high up in the Nou Camp stadium in June 2016 as Racing 92 beat Toulon in the final of the Top 14.
What an arena, what a match. Racing overcame the 17th minute red card of Maxime Machenaud to defeat the most dominant European club of the era. Who could have imagined that since that magnificent occasion neither Racing nor Toulon have won any more silverware?
Toulon’s coaches have paid the price for that failure: Diego Dominguez, Mike Ford, Richard Cockerill, Fabien Galthié, Patrice Collazo and Franck Azema have tried in vain to top up the trophy cabinet and since July Pierre Mignoni is the latest to try and transform Toulon’s fortunes.
Racing have taken a different approach. Owner Jacky Lorenzetti appointed Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit in 2013, shortly after they had masterminded Castres’ first Top14 title in 20 years. One trophy in nine years is probably not the return Lorenzetti envisaged.
Labit left in 2019 to become the backs coach of the national team and this is Travers last season in charge before he moves upstairs next summer to become Racing’s director. He and Lorenzetti have a deep mutual respect that probably explains why the owner stuck by Travers in the last six years.
There have been times when Lorenzetti’s patience appeared to be wearing thin, most notably midway through the 2016-17 season when Racing were just off the relegation zone and out of the Champions Cup having won just one of their pool matches. He gave the coaches the proverbial vote of confidence but his ire was directed more at the players. “We have not been humble,” he remarked at the time.
Perhaps Travers will end his decade in charge with a second trophy, though considering Racing’s mediocre start to this season – they lie eighth after five games – there will have to be a marked improvement in the months ahead.
The man chosen by Lorenzetti to replace Travers is Stuart Lancaster, who will arrive next summer on a four-year contract. “We chose Stuart out of ten applications,” explained Travers, who said the pair had “talked about the game, of course, but also about the overall vision of the club”.
The French media expressed their surprise at the choice. In enlightening their readers as to Lancaster’s credentials the papers mentioned his success with Leinster in the last six years but also the ‘fiasco’ of the 2015 World Cup when his England side failed to reach the quarter-finals of their own tournament.
Lancaster was also the topic of discussion in a rugby podcast last week between several French rugby writers and pundits. It was agreed that Racing are stagnating and a new coach is needed, but is Lancaster the right choice? “The future will tell us,” said former France No8 Imanol Harinordoquy. “Racing need shaking up and that will be a big change. It will be a different approach…[Lancaster] may bring more rigour, more precision in training and fresh ideas because when you watch Racing you have the impression they are stuck in a rut.”
Lancaster showed great strength of character to rebuild his reputation after the disaster of that 2015 World Cup campaign; that quality coupled with his experience and intelligence explain why his was the application of the ten that stood out for Lorenzetti.
Lancaster will certainly bring in some of his own men but nothing will conceal his status as an outsider, and one can picture how he could quickly become isolated if results go against Racing in the first few months
But nonetheless the Racing owner is taking a gamble in parachuting in an Englishman with no experience of French rugby.
First, how will he be received by the other coaches, notably Dimitri Szarzewski and Didier Casadei? The former, an emblematic figure during his playing days at Racing, has been on the coaching staff since 2019 and, who knows, was perhaps among those who applied for the top job.
There were rumours in the French press last week that Leinster’s back coach Felipe Contepomi would be joining Lancaster in Paris but they were quickly scotched by the Argentine. Lancaster will certainly bring in some of his own men but nothing will conceal his status as an outsider, and one can picture how he could quickly become isolated if results go against Racing in the first few months.
He wouldn’t be the first foreign coach to come a cropper in France; think Jake White, Nick Mallett, Dean Richards, Mike Ford, Rory Teague, Heyneke Meyer, Tim Lane, Ewan Mckenzie and Michael Cheika.
Mallett quit Stade Français because he was homesick, but Cheika was given the boot after a player revolt in 2012. “There was a change in method, a method more Anglo-Saxon and maybe that was a mistake,” reflected the Australian. ”But that was my method and if the players weren’t happy, they could always come to me to talk about it. But they went above my head and the management link was broken.”
Something similar happened to Dean Richards during his one season at Grenoble, while Jake White also upset the French contingent at Montpellier by bringing in too many South Africans. As one French player at the club quipped, under White the only thing they improved was their English. White’s failure to learn any French was allegedly one reason why Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad didn’t extend his contract in 2017
Lancaster will be able to stamp his mark on the squad from the outset, and already there is talk of Racing bringing in All Black Beauden Barrett after the 2023 World Cup to replace Finn Russell at fly-half.
That’s the pint half-empty perspective for Lancaster; but look at it from the point of the view of the pint being half-full. What a wonderful opportunity! He’s coming to one of the most glamorous and financially stable clubs in the world, run by a man who, unlike some French owners, is neither volatile or egomaniacal. The club play in a superb indoor stadium in the west of Paris and their training facilities in the south of the capital are among the best in Europe.
Lancaster will be able to stamp his mark on the squad from the outset, and already there is talk of Racing bringing in All Black Beauden Barrett after the 2023 World Cup to replace Finn Russell at fly-half. The Scot is one of several of the current squad in their thirties and it would be a surprise if Juan Imoff, Wenceslas Lauret, Henry Chavancy, Teddy Iribaren and Eddy Ben Arous are still at the club next season.
But there is a cadre of exciting young talent at Racing, including French internationals
Max Spring, Ibrahim Diallo and Cameron Woki, part of the new generation in France who have proved themselves more open and more adaptable than their predecessors.
The ‘rigour’ and ‘precision’ of which Imanol Harinordoquy talks was alien to previous generations of French players, as Cheika discovered at Stade Francais. But a different mindset now prevails within the national set-up thanks to a root and branch reform of the development programme in 2014 under national technical director Didier Retière. The appointment in 2019 of Fabien Galthié as head coach of the Bleus with Raphaël Ibañez as manager and Shaun Edwards as defence coach has continued this revolution and the way France – at all age groups – prepare for matches physically and mentally is unrecognisable from the approach of previous eras. Recent results bear testament to this transition from amateurism to professionalism.
Lancaster should discover a squad that in general is receptive to his ‘Anglo-Saxon’ methods. Bernard Jackman, the former Ireland and Leinster hooker, spent five years on the coaching staff at Grenoble, first in charge of the forwards and then as head coach. Asked for one piece of advice he would give Lancaster, he says to keep in close contact with Lorenzetti. “People don’t like change but they will have to change because Racing are underperforming,” he explains. “A few won’t like it, they may go to Jacky and complain, so Stuart needs to keep in regular contact with Jacky and make sure he understands what he is doing and why”.
He knows it is going to be a new type of challenge. You couldn’t get two more different club: at Leinster everyone lives close to the stadium and most of the squad have grown up together. At Racing you have a mix of nationalities with different mindsets and methods
Jackman, who has spoken to Lancaster since news broke of his appointment, is confident he will be a success in France. “He’s a clever man, a dedicated professional, an expert in leadership and he has excellent people skills,” says Jackman. “He knows it is going to be a new type of challenge. You couldn’t get two more different club: at Leinster everyone lives close to the stadium and most of the squad have grown up together, gone to the same schools. At Racing you have a mix of nationalities with different mindsets and methods.”
Racing have a reputation as a chic and sophisticated club. In the 1990 French final they sipped champagne at half-time and when they ran out on to the Nou Camp in 2016 they had on their club blazers over their kit. They won both matches. Recently, however, they have grown stale and perhaps a plain-speaking northern Englishman will put the fizz back into Racing.
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