With Stade Francais reaching the Top 14 Final, Racing Metro owner Jacky Lorenzetti can be forgiven for wondering how his push for Parisien-supremacy turned sour
You’ve got to feel for Jacky Lorenzetti. All that money he’s spent in the last two years to turn Racing Metro into the strongest side in France, and what’s he got to show for it? Not much, certainly no silverware, which is why he and other business tycoons get involved in rugby. If a barren trophy cabinet wasn’t bad enough, Lorenzetti now has to look on as Parisian rivals Stade Francais take on Clermont in Saturday’s Top 14 final.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Weren’t Stade the side in decline, a shadow of the outfit that won four Top 14 titles between 1998 and 2004? Wasn’t it Racing Metro’s turn to rule the Parisian roost?
That’s what Jacky must have envisaged two years ago when he lured coaches Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit from Castres, the duo having just masterminded Castres’ first Bouclier de Brennus in 20 years. The two Laurents naturally couldn’t resist swapping provincial Castres for go-getting, glamorous Racing, particularly when Lorenzetti presented them with three of the game’s superstars in Jonathan Sexton, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts.
The trio arrived in Paris fresh from playing pivotal parts in the British and Irish Lions’ Test series defeat of Australia. All three were at the top of their game, all three would spearhead Racing Metro’s charge to the top of French rugby. For differing circumstances, all three have now left.
Sexton (allegedly on a £555,000-a-year deal) and his family were homesick from the start of their Paris adventure and in an interview in January 2014 the fly-half admitted that he had considered “going home” several times already. He stuck it out, though his rugby never replicated what he’d produced for Leinster, before announcing in September that he would not be taking up the option of a third season with Racing in 2015-2016 but would be returning to Ireland.
Dan Lydiate’s malfunction was even more marked. The Welsh flanker, voted the Player of the 2012 Six Nations, started just six league matches for Racing in his first season, and last November his contract was terminated and he signed for the Ospreys, with a feeling it was best for both parties.
At the same time French sports daily L’Equipe said Jamie Roberts – rumoured to be on £34,000 a month – was also likely to be heading home after disappointing Racing. The paper quoted Labit saying the Wales centre and Lydiate “have never really been performing since their arrival.” This public admonishment was certainly not welcomed by Roberts.
It looks like Lorenzetti has learned from his Celtic catastrophe and changed his recruitment philosophy. Apart from Dan Carter – hired to put bums on seats at Racing’s new stadium that opens next year – the club has signed for next season players who are either French or already well-adjusted to French rugby: Remi Tales is arriving from Castres, Yannick Nyanga from Toulouse, Chris Masoe is heading north from Toulon and Argentine lock Manuel Carizza is re-joining after a spell with the Stormers.
It’s unlikely Racing will be signing any Home Nations players for the foreseeable future, and Stade Francais have also fallen out of love with British exports after James Haskell, Simon Taylor, Paul Sackey, Hugo Southwell and Tom Palmer all struggled to adapt to the French game. Tellingly, the one Briton who did make a good fist of his time with Stade was wing Ollie Phillips. In two seasons at the Stade Jean Bouin he scored 14 tries in 29 Top 14 appearances. Perhaps it was because he made an effort to learn the language. As he said in an interview, “I forced myself to read and watch the news constantly, and got my team-mates to speak to me only in French.”
Instead Stade – who were forced to reduce their wage bill after their  financial crisis of 2011 – focused on developing French talent. Ten of the starting XV that beat Toulon on Friday are French; some like centre Jonathan Danty and Rabah Slimani (both local lads) still have their best years ahead of them; others, notably scrum-half Julien Dupuy and winger Julien Arias, are thriving in the twilight of their careers thanks to the inspiring and intelligent coaching of Gonzalo Quesada.
The Argentine was appointed Stade coach in the summer of 2013 – the same time as the two Laurents took up their role with Racing. Such has been Quesada’s success in revitalising Stade Francais that Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal admitted recently he had approached him to replace Bernard Laporte. Quesada turned down the offer, leaving Boudjellal to settle for another Argentine, Diego Dominguez, as Laporte’s successor.
As for Laporte, might he end up at Racing when his Toulon contract expires in June 2016? According to Monday’s Midi Olympique it’s a possibility, one that will perhaps be dependent on next season’s results. Another season of underachievement and Travers and Labit are sure to have exhausted Lorenzetti’s patience.