The Racing Metro enigma
January 7, 2014
Racing Metro have struggled this season © Getty Images
This was meant to be Racing Metro's breakthrough season but after the latest humiliating defeat against lowly Oyonnax it's all beginning to unravel.
Billionaire owner Jacky Lorenzetti spent last summer signing up three British & Irish Lions, the reigning Top 14 coaching duo and a host of other big names to turn his club from domestic pretenders to European giants.
Yet with barely half the season gone, the Parisian side find themselves all but out of Europe and face an uphill battle to even make the Top 14 play-offs. So the question is where has it all gone wrong for Racing and can they turn it around this season?
In terms of what's gone wrong, for starters the summer signings have not worked out as planned. Jonny Sexton was meant to be Racing's answer to Jonny Wilkinson in Toulon, but he's struggled to impose himself in a constantly changing backline.
Sexton has not performed badly, his goal-kicking has been relatively reliable and he's already featured more times domestically than he did in each of Leinster's last three Celtic League campaigns. But after years of playing in a settled Leinster backline, it's no surprise he hasn't shown quite the same cohesion with his new teammates.
Racing Metro got found out against Harlequins © Getty Images
He's also been without his Lions foil Jamie Roberts who has struggled with injuries, a familiar refrain for Cardiff Blues fans. The Welshman suffered his latest setback against Toulon ten days ago in only his sixth appearance of the season.
It's not been any easier for Dan Lydiate, the centrepiece of Warren Gatland's defensive strategy but so far a fish out of water in the Top 14. The flankers have been one of the few bright spots for Racing with occasional skipper Antoine Battut and French international pair Wenceslas Lauret and Bernard Leroux all looking good. That's left Lydiate often on the outside looking in, and missed tackles like the one on Harlequins' Charlie Walker just before Christmas, will not help his cause.
Mike Phillips became the fourth Lion in the French capital in December and is still waiting to really make his mark at the club.
Having said that, it's unfair to place the blame solely at the hands of the Lions contingent, after all they have come off a long summer tour and in a star-studded squad there should have been the margin to introduce them slowly.
Injuries have played their part in preventing that, Jonathan Wisniewski has struggled to stay fit forcing Sexton to play more than he would have expected, while Maxime Machenaud, Juan Martin Hernandez and Benjamin Fall have all spent extended periods on the sidelines. Northampton propping duo Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati were also added in the summer to bolster the Racing pack but neither has featured regularly, and they joined Lydiate and Roberts in the Midi Olympique's top ten worst signings of the season just before Christmas.
Still, the coaching pair of Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit had always been well-known for making the most of the talent available to them both at Castres, where they won the Bouclier de Brennus last year, and Montauban before that.
Arguably the French equivalent of Rob Baxter at Exeter, this was their chance to prove they could succeed with limitless resources, but this feels like a squad built by someone else. Their game plan with Castres often revolved around the best lineout in the league and a great mauling game but they haven't been able to put that in place with their new charges. A bulky pack has also struggled against teams who like to spread the ball, most notably in Europe against Quins and away to Clermont and Toulon in the league.
In contrast the Racing attack has been stale, with just 14 tries in 16 league games, leaving them ahead of only lowly Biarritz as the second worst attack in France. As a result it's no surprise that Racing have yet to pick up an attacking bonus point, something which will have to change if they are to finish in the top six and make the play-offs.
Racing Metro brought in Jonathan Sexton in the summer © Getty Images
A 6-0 loss at Oyonnax at the weekend, in atrocious conditions, left Racing eighth, three points off the final play-off spot. With ten games remaining they cannot afford to slip up at home while they will almost certainly need a win away at fellow play-off hopefuls Grenoble or Montpellier to make up lost ground.
But all is not lost, Racing already have one away win to their name and are one of just two teams to have avoided defeat at Brive. Their dismal displays in the Heineken Cup clashes with Quins, where they looked completely disinterested, have also given a slightly misleading impression of the lack of fight in the squad. Players like Benjamin Lapeyre, Battut and Marc Andreu all fall into the Mike Brown mould of commitment and will drive the team on.
The road to recovery will start in a fortnight at home to a Toulouse team missing their Six Nations contingent, and the best idea for the two Laurents should be to pick a first choice side and stick with it. Fantasy rugby works well on paper, but as Toulon showed last season, knowing your best team and giving them lots of game time together, is generally more effective.
Lorenzetti is in this for the long haul, with a new 32,000-seater stadium due for 2016, and more big name signings set to join in the summer. Those are set to include Castres pair Antonie Claassen and Brice Dulin so Labit and Travers are in no danger in the short term. Notably, Racing have not yet joined the race for Irish and Welsh talent, having been burned this season.
But Lorenzetti, who made his fortune through real estate giant Foncia, will not put up with underperforming for long, as was shown by his decision to switch the game against Toulon from the Stade de France to Colombes after an abject defeat to Harlequins.
So while the pressure is off over the next fortnight in Europe, the return to domestic action against Toulouse will be Racing's most important game of the season so far - time for Sexton and co to start firing.
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