“A Season in Hell” was Midi Olympique’s headline at the start of this month, and few at Racing 92 would contradict that curt assessment. And that was written before the humiliation of losing 32-7 at home to Munster, and the announcement that the cortisone affair was not yet over with France’s Anti-Doping Agency summoning Racing to their HQ to explain themselves.
That hullabaloo, which erupted in early October, was the first blow to hit the Top 14 champions this season. There have been a few since but there’s a sense that the club, which prides itself on its sophisticated image, has never fully recovered from having the names of Dan Carter, Juan Imhoff and Joe Rokocoko dragged through the mud. The trio were cleared of any wrongdoing at a FFR hearing, the corticosteroids detected in their bodies following last season’s Top 14 final satisfactorily explained.
Nonetheless, the French press went to town and it clearly upset and unsettled the squad. Little did we know at the time but it was a squad already destabilised by the attitude of Johan Goosen, the gifted South African who last season was voted the Top 14 Player of the Year. His subsequent retirement to work at a stud farm in South Africa – for the time being, at least – was another body blow to a club already struggling to find a rhythm to its season.
At least Racing broke its European duck on Saturday, thrashing Leicester 34-3 ( a stroke of luck that they played a side who are enduring a hellish season of their own), but they must conclude their wretched Champions Cup campaign with a trip to Munster. Talk about a hiding to nothing. Coach Laurent Labit didn’t even try to pretend the Thomond Park match mattered when he declared on Saturday: “It’s going to be a new season that starts for us at Lyon”
Racing, currently ninth in the Top 14 table, play Lyon on Saturday week in the Top 14, and then have matches against Brive and Grenoble. That’s not a bad hat-trick of matches for a team looking to build momentum in the second half of the season, and how they need a winning streak. Club president Jacky Lorenzetti gave Labit and his co-coach, Laurent Travers, the proverbial vote of confidence at the weekend, but it’s hard to conceive how they would keep their jobs if Racing don’t reach the play-offs.
So how did it get to this, that the club who last season won their domestic title and reached the final of the Champions Cup, should have come off the rails so quickly? Part of the problem was that the squad, having won the title on that glorious night in Barcelona on June 24, didn’t report back to duty until July 30, two, three or in some cases, four weeks after their rivals began their pre-season training. Even when the season began it was evident that some of the squad were still mentally on holiday. They scraped a few victories at home, but it wasn’t until the end of October that they beat Bayonne 16-3 to record their first win on the road.
Allied to that was the absence of some key players in Goosen, the tireless flanker Bernard Le Roux (a long-term injury casualty) and second row Luke Charteris (now at Bath), not to mention the poor form of Dan Carter.
“We have not been humble,” said Lorenzetti recently, before tearing a strip of some of his star names for their questionable effort. “When we see the number of matches they’ve played, it’s just not right that they should be tired.”
In the players’ defence, it must be hard to get up for some games at the Stade Yves-Manoir. It’s a dump. A historical dump, but at a dump, all the same. The club was supposed to move this month to their spanking new location, Arena 92, but the project fell behind schedule and won’t be inaugurated until September. The fear now for Lorenzetti is: will he fill it? Their average gate this season has fallen 12.8% to 8,863, and yet next season they’ll need to find 32,000 bums to put on seats.
When Racing returned from Barcelona with the Bouclier de Brennus in June, they were greeted by 1,500 diehard supporters. In contrast more than 50,000 fans welcomed Toulon home when they won the Top 14 title in 2014, similar to the massed ranks of the Yellow Army who brought Clermont to a standstill in 2010 to honour their boys’ first title.
With Stade Francais also enduring a torrid season, on and off the pitch, these are troubling times for the capital’s two clubs. Bayonne and Biarritz never managed to co-exist in the top flight, and one wonders how long Stade and Racing are going to keep balancing the books in a city that traditionally prefers more cerebral pursuits.