Sunday 28 May 2017

Racing’s ruthless ambition betrays old ethos

Racing Metro's Sebastien Chabal is sure to make life tough for Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Reuters
Racing Metro's Sebastien Chabal is sure to make life tough for Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Reuters
David Kelly

David Kelly

When they raise a glass to Mossie in Portarlington in the Pint O'Port or wherever this afternoon, the presence of one of the game's greats, Jean Pierre Rives, will call to mind a phrase that typified men of Keane's Corinthian ilk.

"The whole point of rugby is that it is, first and foremost, a state of mind, a spirit," Rives once opined. The 'Golden Helmet', known for his flowing locks and dashing back-row play, couldn't have penned a better epitaph for his erstwhile rival had he been asked.

It is more debatable whether Rives will be of a mind to linger until his former club, Racing Metro 92, pitch up in Dublin for the Heineken Cup opener against Leinster on Saturday afternoon.

Rives has become ever more distant from one of the truly aristocratic names of French rugby, heirs to a century-old tradition of class and elegance but which, like much of the sport these days, has succumbed to the excesses of filthy lucre and ill behaviour.

In their current guise, Racing Metro 92 arrive in Dublin as Top 14 pacesetters backboned by the ambitions of a real estate magnate, Jacky Lorenzetti, whose personal wealth reputedly exceeds €700m.

In May 2006 he bought a 61pc stake in the then struggling Pro D2 strugglers Racing Metro 92, ousting stalwarts and storied French favourites Eric Blanc and Franck Mesnel in the process.

Budget

After a dismal first season in which Racing Metro finished 11th in Pro D2, Lorenzetti upped the budget to a massive €9m, recruited former French international Pierre Berbizier as coach and invested in big-name players such as Andrew Mehrtens, Sireli Bobo and Agustin Pichot.

His ambition to reach the Top 14 was delayed by a season but his aim of playing in the Heineken Cup this year was fulfilled after an astonishing 10-game winning streak to claim the sixth and final qualifying berth last May.

Their fairytale resurrection has not been without rancour. Last month, Berbizier questioned the appointment of referee Christophe Berdos to a clash with La Rochelle, earning him a two-month domestic touchline ban. This continued a feud that had started towards the end of last season.

It was then when Rives intervened. "Why give such an image of rugby and Racing?" he lamented. "It is very harmful. I find the comments of Pierre Berbizier downright pathetic. Rugby does not deserve so much bitterness."

Rives' memories of Racing hail from a different era but a no less successful one. Originally founded as an athletics club called Racing Club in 1882, the club became Racing Club de France in 1885 and inaugurated its rugby section in 1890, installing them in the historic Stade Colombes from 1907.

Two years later the club became the first champions of France, beating Stade Francais 4-3 in a match refereed by Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

The club's final golden era came in the late eighties, when the flamboyant 'le show bizz' set that included Mesnel, Blanc, Philippe Guillard and Jean-Baptise Lafond took Racing to two finals. They lost the first, to Toulon, in 1987, but three years later beat Agen 22-12 after extra-time in a match made famous by the half-time champagne served to the Racing XV by the injured Yvon Rousset.

Oh, and they played in pink bow ties. A year earlier, their backs sported long red and white-striped shorts to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

Once, they played with berets. Another time, they arrived to the field on bicycles, wearing plastic hats to support AIDS charities, donning painted black faces to combat racism.

Yes, they were different. Their decline coincided with professionalism and Stade Francais, replete with a sugar pere of their own, stole their shocking pink colours. Where else would they have divined the idea of nude calendars?

Now Racing Metro are back on the Parisian scene and looking to conquer Europe. A la recherche du temps perdu (in search of lost time). And willing to pay for it too.

Necessarily retaining less of their former bohemian eccentricity, one wonders whether Rives would agree with Lorenzetti's assertion that "this team has a soul".

Taking the Heineken Cup seriously may offer a clue as to whether the team retain echoes of their spirited predecessors.

Irish Independent

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