Six weeks after his World Cup heroics, Dan Carter is finally ready to start adding unrivalled star dust to the Top 14
A Kiwi has just arrived at Racing 92 but it’s not Dan Carter. On Monday the club announced that former All Black lock Ali Williams had joined the staff as ‘public relations advisor’ to Dan Carter. He’s the New Zealander who has dominated the French rugby headlines of late, the World Cup winning fly-half causing great excitement not just at Racing but in the sports media generally
The French are like that when it comes to rugby. They need heroes. A decade ago it was Fred Michalak, then when he made it clear he didn’t savour the limelight, they moved on to Sebastien Chabal. Jonny Wilkinson subsequently played the reluctant hero for a couple of seasons but since his retirement in June 2014 the media have lacked a player to worship.
Enter Dan Carter. Handsome, clean-cut and gifted, what more could the media and marketing people want? Apparently requests for interviews and commercial deals have been pouring into Racing and that’s the reason they’ve brought on board Williams.
Carter is expected to make his debut in Saturday’s Champions Cup clash at home to Northampton, a tough challenge for a player whose last competitive match was his sumptuous display in the World Cup Final six weeks ago.
Carter joins a squad that has made a quietly impressive start to the season. They lie fourth in the Top 14 table (three points behind leaders Clermont), but Racing 92 have lost only twice, the fewest number of defeats in the league this season. Last Friday’s 15-15 draw away at Pau was the sort of fixture that in seasons gone by they would have lost, but there’s a pragmatism to Racing this season that hasn’t been there in the past.
Their bonus point 29-12 win away at the Scarlets last month delighted backs coach Laurent Labit, who hailed the result as their best performance of the season. Midi Olympique described it as a display of “impressive maturity”. Labit said it was more to do with the fact the ripples of disruption caused by the World Cup had disappeared and the squad was training smoothly for the first time this season.
Racing’s form may also have something to do with their recruitment. In an interview at the start of this season, Racing forwards’ coach Laurent Travers explained that they had learned from past mistakes and in future they would sign only “players with a strong attachment to the club…we really want players who are ready to serve the club rather than players looking after their own interests.”
In echoing those comments, Labit added: “We saw in the first two seasons players who were focused essentially on their national team. We’re trying to bring back a club spirit.”
So while Carter is their marquee signing, elsewhere Labit and Travers, have brought in players they feel will adapt better to the Racing culture. Hence the arrival in the summer of the French duo of Yannick Nyanga and Remi Tales, and the vastly-experienced Chris Masoe, whose eight seasons in the Top 14 have included Top 14 and Champions Cup titles with Toulon. Masoe is one of life’s winners, as is Joe Rokocoko, another New Zealander signed by Racing last summer.
In an interview with Midi Olympique last week, Ronan O’Gara explained why Masoe, Rokocoko and Carter have been signed. “We all like to talk and discuss rugby, but the only truth is this: the country that wins at the end is New Zealand. Because they’ve the ability to work and become involved in the game plan. Only the All Blacks speak the real rugby.”
It’s this winning mentality that the Racing coaching staff hope will rub off on the rest of the squad. Last season’s quarter-final defeat to Saracens in the Champions Cup hurt the club. It was naive, even a little embarrassing, to lose in such a sloppy manner by conceding a last-minute penalty. “Racing 92 haven’t had a winning culture, until now,” explained O’Gara. “No disrespect to the former players but we’ve only won the ProD2 championship. That’s not the level that the club aspires to.”
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O’Gara was a member of the magnificent Munster squad that won Heineken Cup crowns in 2006 and 2008, and he’s doing his own bit to harden the minds of the Racing players. “At Munster we say it’s not the two hours of training that matter, but the 22 hours after. That entails, for the players, permanent sacrifices. Have you done an extra video session? Have you seen the physio for a massage? Have you done enough stretching? It’s the individual work that’s most important.”
O’Gara understands that, so too Masoe, Rokocoko and Carter. If the rest of the Racing squad embrace this new rigorous approach, Racing may finally get their hands on some serious silverware.