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FEATURE Why serial underachievers Racing 92 spend big and win little

Why serial underachievers Racing 92 spend big and win little
4 months ago

The English Premiership has been on holiday since late January. Perhaps it’s poolside in Dubai, cool drink in one hand, sun cream in the other.

The United Rugby Championship hasn’t had the same length of break but with only a couple of rounds during the Six Nations there’s been plenty of time to kick back and chill out. How Stuart Lancaster must pine for those luxurious days when he was coaching at Leinster.

Instead, the Englishman is learning life in the Top 14 is as ruthless as it is relentless. There’s no free time in February. Time off? Wait until July.

Lancaster <a href=
Racing 92 interview” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> Former England and Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster took charge of Racing 92 at the start of the season (Photo by Gaizka Iroz/AFP via Getty Images)

Lancaster, who took up his appointment as Racing 92 head coach last summer, started the New Year in high spirits. ‘Delighted’ was how he described himself after watching his side beat Castres to extend their lead at the top of the French championship to four points.

It’s been downhill ever since for Racing, a descent that has coincided with the Six Nations. They lost in Paris to Toulouse, suffered a 26-5 drubbing away in Perpignan and then went down at home to Montpellier and Stade Francais. Last Saturday’s derby defeat was particularly galling for Racing, who have slipped to sixth in the table and trail joint leaders Stade Francais and Toulouse by ten points.

Lancaster was asked what’s gone wrong in the post-match press conference.

“The explanations are more or less the same as last week, after the defeat against Montpellier,” he replied. “We’re short of key players in important positions. It’s not often I’ve lost four scrum-halves before a match like this, and we were forced to play (full-back) Max Spring in that position. The same goes for the second row, where we’ve lost four international players. All that affects our cohesion.”

Jacky Lorenzetti has brought much of the underachievement on himself. He’s signed a veritable galaxy of rugby stars but only Dan Carter represents value for money.

In fact, Lancaster got off reasonably lightly when Fabien Galthie announced his Six Nations squad. He selected five players from Racing 92, one fewer than La Rochelle and four shy of the Toulouse contingent.

But throw in a couple of injuries and suddenly the lack of depth of the Racing squad has been exposed. It won’t get any easier for Lancaster in the short term: next week his takes his squad to Bordeaux and the week after they host Toulon. Four straight losses might easily be six by the time Lancaster welcomes back his international stars on the weekend of 23rd March.

One can only sympathise with Lancaster. When news of his move emerged eighteen months ago, I asked in these pages if the former England boss would ‘finally help the enigmatic French club fulfil their potential’. There can surely be few more patient owners in the Top 14 than Jacky Lorenzetti, the tycoon who has been pumping money into Racing for nearly twenty years. In return for his investment he has only one major title to boast: the Top 14 crown in 2016.

But Lorenzetti has brought much of the underachievement on himself. Over the years he’s signed a veritable galaxy of rugby stars: Dan Lydiate, Francois Steyn, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Sexton, Juandré Kruger, Finn Russell, Dan Carter, Pat Lambie and Kurtley Beale. They were paid vast sums – Steyn, for example, was reputedly on €750,000 a season when he joined Racing in 2009, who were then in the ProD2. Yet of them all, only Carter can be considered as representing value for money as he was part of the 2016 title-winning XV.

Siya Kolisi
Double world champion Siya Kolisi is one of the latest megastars to join Racing ranks (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP) (Photo by THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Contrast Lorenzetti’s approach of trying to buy success with how Toulouse have gone about building a dynasty. Despite losing the heart of their starting line-up to Galthie (not forgetting the absence of Antoine Dupont, now with the France Sevens squad), Toulouse are on a five-match winning streak. Their latest success was a 37-33 away win in Clermont, against vastly more experienced opponents. As the headline in Monday’s Midi Olympique put it: ‘The future looks bright’.

Among the starters against Clermont were 18-year-old Kalvin Gourgues at full-back, 21-year-old Paul Costes in the centre and 23-year-old Baptiste Germain at scrum-half; the back-row included 21-year-old Leo Banos and 20-year-old Mathis Castro-Ferreira, and in the front row was hooker Guillaume Cramont, 23, and 22-year-old tighthead prop Joel Merkler.

Most of these players have come up through the Toulouse youth system, as has 22-year-old Josh Brennan, who was in the second-row against Clermont. When Brennan spoke to RugbyPass in 2021 he referenced the ‘Toulouse DNA’. He defined it as follows: ‘What’s good at Toulouse is the way they play. They want all the youngsters to play the way they do in the first team. So as you come up through the ages in Toulouse you have the same calls…and that helps you into it, it creates the Toulouse DNA from a young age.’

Wouldn’t that money be better spent by in investing in youth, trying to create a ‘Racing DNA’?

The other aspect of the Toulouse development pathway is that it creates a camaraderie from a young age. ‘That is a very important factor,’ said Brennan. ‘It’s kind of like a big family at Toulouse. Everybody gets on with each other, there are no cliques between the French boys and the foreigners, everyone mixes.’

Toulouse rarely sign overseas stars. The biggest foreign name they’ve had in recent years was Cheslin Kolbe, but it was Toulouse who turned him into a star. When he joined them in 2017, the South African wing had yet to be capped.

Toulouse are cautious before they open their chequebook; they gave Jack Willis, the England flanker, a six-month deal when Wasps went bust in late 2022. When they liked what they saw, they offered him a three-year deal in March 2023 and he had little hesitation in putting pen to paper.

Whatever Willis is earning at Toulouse, it won’t be anywhere near what Racing pay Siya Kolisi or what Owen Farrell will be earning when he arrives in the summer. The latter is rumoured to be in line for a salary of €1m a season, a tidy sum for a player who turns 34 in September.

Racing 92 scraped through their Champions Cup pool and have since lost their place at the summit of the Top 14 (Photo by PA)

But wouldn’t that money be better spent by in investing in youth, trying to create a ‘Racing DNA’? Of the Racing starting XV that lost to Stade Francais on Saturday, only three were under 25, and none of that trio had come through the club’s development pathway.

Racing beat Toulouse in the quarter-final play-off en route to winning the 2016 title, which was also the season when they lost to Saracens in the Champions Cup final. It was a difficult period for Toulouse; in 2016-17 they finished 12th in the Top 14, one place above the relegation zone.

If Lancaster wants to achieve success at Racing he will have to change the DNA of a club that for too long has prioritised short-term investment over long-term development.

Their young coach, Ugo Mola, was still finding his feet, and they had a squad of fresh-faced tyros, unknowns such as Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille, Peato Mauvaka, Francois Cros and Thomas Ramos.

These boys have grown into men who have since won three Top 14 titles and the 2021 Champions Cup. Racing have achieved nothing in that period, other than making newspaper headlines for signing another big star past their prime.

If Lancaster wants to achieve success at Racing he will have to change the DNA of a club that for too long has prioritised short-term investment over long-term development.

Comments

3 Comments
S
Sana17 142 days ago

Ok the last 12 games we have 9 lost. So it’s not science the 6nations.

But yes lots of players are missing.

Racing has only 1 top14 title the last 10 years, but 3 Hcup finals, and always in top14 playoff.
Racing has a nice youth training and are very active in Paris area to found good profiles.

You compared it with Toulouse that is the biggest dream of nearly all young french from south west, land of rugby in France. When in Paris young prefer soccer.

So yeah some bench difficulties, but we really are waiting to see Lancaster work results. It’s only 6 mounth, but it’s absoluyly not probative.

N
Nick 144 days ago

When you actually look at the list of injured and unavailable, SL’s comments make the most sense.

In the tight five alone, Gogichashvili, Chat, Laclayat [France], Rowlands [Wales], Woki [France], Chouzenoux and Sanconnie all missing. The first five of those would all be first choices.

Three quarters the whole 9-10-12-13 axis: all of Le Garrec and Gibert [both France], Tuisova and Fickou [France].

At various times, he has been forced to pick props at hooker [Eddie Ben Arous], Full-backs at scrum-half [Max Spring] and operate without both first choice lineout callers [Chouz and Woki].

Racing will improve when those players come back.

R
Red and White Dynamight 144 days ago

Toulon were the first ‘Galactios’ club rugby team and they won absolutely everything.

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