Tuesday 12 December 2017

Kate Rowan: Lions core to drive Racing Metro quest for European glory

Sexton will be crucial to an attack-minded approach from Racing
Sexton will be crucial to an attack-minded approach from Racing

Kate Rowan

Have you thought about the club that have signed three of the final test starting Lions to play for them this coming season?

Jonathan Sexton and the Welsh duo of Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate will continue as teammates as they don the Ciel et Blanc of Racing Metro.

If you are suffering withdrawal symptoms from that Lions “fantasy rugby” element of usual foes coming together to do battle, Racing Metro could be the answer.

Irish interest in the Paris based club would have always been there with the newly retired from playing Ronan O’Gara joining as a coach. With the Lions’ victory and how Sexton, Roberts and Lydiate were successful tourists will not just heighten Irish and Welsh interest but perhaps add a Lions dimension of interest in the club across the home nations.

Cynics and rugby purists will complain about the changing nature of professional rugby and how it has allowed for a situation where an Irishman and two Welshmen will leave their respective provinces and regions to play for a dream team of hand-picked international rugby superstars in France.

Others will see this as an opportunity to watch some of our own play “fantasy rugby” week in week out. There is bound to be a buzz around the Top 14 fixture when Racing take on Toulon, in what many will be hoping to be a battle between the fly half Jonnies – Sexton and Wilkinson.

Whether we like it or not rugby is becoming increasingly professional and commercial. The Lions brand is an excellent example of how an institution so deeply rooted in the amateur ethos has grown to epitomise the very peak of professionalism.

The players, coaches and support staff play the biggest role in ensuring this professionalism. But in being professionals they have to be paid and this is where sponsors play their part.

Each time the Lions trained, hoarding baring the logos of HSBC, Land Rover, Adidas, Microsoft and First Cape Wines surrounded their pitch.

Fans and sponsors alike love the concept of the Lions because of the unique combination of fantasy rugby combined with heritage and folklore all driven forward by professionals. Add this Tour’s success and the Lions brand’s commercial clout and popular appeal is sure to grow heading towards 2017.

Now to Racing Metro. When you take a closer look at the Parisian side’s history, it could perhaps be trying to cultivate a similar style of rugby brand to the Lions weaving a mix of old school rugby ethos with über-professionalism.

Visiting the club’s website gives a hint of the sense of history they are trying to portray “Racing Metro 92 Rugby – Depuis 1882”.

The 92 is in reference to the club’s location in the département numbered 92 of Hauts-de-Seine to the west of Paris. Some could argue that the “since 1882” is a little misleading since Racing Metro in its current incarnation was formed in 2001 with the amalgamation of Racing Club de France and US Metro.

Racing Club was formed in 1882 and in 1892 won the inaugural French Rugby Championship, becoming the first club to get its hands on the Bouclier de Brennus.

The Bouclier de Brennus is today the trophy awarded to the winner of the Top 14 – a piece of silverware that Sexton, Roberts, Lydiate and O’Gara will be hoping to get their hands on.

However, the current Racing Metro only reached the top flight of French rugby in 2009, thanks in great part to club president Jacky Lorenzetti, a real estate tycoon who has been the force pushing the club from struggling in the second division to being able to lure the likes of the trio of Lions.

Despite having something of an outward rugby sugar daddy appearance, Lorenzetti believes that the key to Racing’s future is to create a deep-rooted rugby culture as the foundation for on the field and then commercial success.

Whether it was intentional or not the signing of Sexton, Roberts and Lydiate could prove to be inspired not just in terms of how they can play but as well as being modern model professionals they all have traits that would fit in with a more traditional rugby ethos.

Roberts and Lydiate have earned admiration for how both as well as carving world-class rugby careers have cultivated career paths outside the sport in medicine and farming respectively. Sexton exudes a passion and love for the game.

Each player has a distinct identity and all three were media favourites during the Lions Tour. When Lydiate captained the Lions against the Melbourne Rebels he came across as genuinely humbled, making him very relatable. Add Sexton’s spiritedness and Robert’s commitment to his studies and you have a great blend of old school rugby values combined with professionalism that eliminates any feeling of “soccer-star-isation” of rugby.

There are local fans but rugby does not attract the same fervour in Paris as it does in the South West of France. So, there is room to grow the fan base. Could with the intrigue surrounding the Sexton-O’Gara dynamic and Roberts and Lydiate attract Irish and Welsh support?

This suggestion may appal some rugby fans, particularly those with the sort of deep-rooted sense of identity of Munster, Leinster or Ulster fans. The Irish have a love affair with the Heineken Cup and having a French team to support could add an extra dimension for some.

Perhaps, the Welsh fan market could be swayed towards France as the regions have always struggled in European competition. Could Paris become a rugby tourism destination similar to how Barcelona and Madrid have in the soccer world?

It is clear that Racing will have a certain “je ne sais quoi” this season and it will be almost as intriguing to see how fans and sponsors respond to the new arrivals as the on the field action.

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