Saracens should be wary of a Racing side fulfilling their potential in this weekend's European Champions Cup final
Racing’s two Laurents, Travers and Labit, have the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine down to a tee. The former, Racing’s forwards coach, is full of busy bonhomie, always ready to give a few touchline comments to broadcasters as he watches his team in the Top 14. In contrast, Labit likes to look on from the stand with a brooding intensity.
When your correspondent interviewed the pair at Racing’s training ground in the summer of 2014, Travers greeted me with a cheery cry: “Ah, my English cousin!” laughing at a scalp that was as follicly-challenged as his own. Labit was different. It was clear the interview was a chore and not a pleasure, at least initially. But the frosty demeanour thawed the longer the interview wore on, Labit a rugby obsessive with concise, insightful opinions across a range of issues. He even smiled on a couple of occasions.
I escaped without feeling his wrath, not so South African referee Jaco van Heerden, who a couple of months later felt the full force of Labit’s fury after Racing had lost to Stade Francais in a Top 14 encounter. Enraged by a controversial Stade try and two yellow cards for his players, Labit accused van Heerden of “amateurism” and of staging a “hold-up”. His comments earned the Racing coach a 15-match ban, and the anger of his own brother, a teacher, who had also seen his sibling hit with a ten-week suspension the previous season for “reprehensible behaviour” during Racing’s play-off against Toulouse.
“After the incident with the South African my brother actually said to me, ‘How do you expect me to educate my kids when they see you doing that?’” Labit told Midi Olympique earlier this season. “That made me think. I am first and foremost an educator. So I decided to change.”
And change he has. Sort of. The ranting and raving are a thing of the past, no doubt to his brother’s relief, but he’s still refreshingly candid in much of what he says. The fact Racing finished last season without a trophy, or even an appearance in a final, rankled with Labit. He felt dissatisifed, with himself and his squad. One of his first targets was Johan Goosen, the gifted South African threequarter.
“His contract still runs for two years, but he knows he’ll have to change his attitude,” said Labit last summer. “If not, then there’s a good chance that he won’t be here for a third year of his contract. You expect a player of his age to be more serious about things… you have certain expectations of a professional player. He’ll have to pull up his socks if he wants to play.”
Goosen admitted he was surprised by the criticism, but he responded in the best way possible, producing the high-quality rugby this season that won him a Springbok cap at the age of 20.
Unfortunately the trio of Celtic stars signed by Racing for the start of the 2013 season never came good. Dan Lydiate left in late 2014 while Jamie Roberts and Johnny Sexton departed Paris last summer after two seasons of underachievement. Asked by Midi Olympique in January for his assessment of the first half of the season, Labit replied: “It’s going well, because our stars are real stars, guys easy to manage. I couldn’t accept what happened last year, to have to assemble our top players each month to explain to them what was wrong. Above all, I understood that it was best to hold these discussions in the privacy of the office. There they didn’t dent their pride. When you say things in the media, it’s different: you harm their image.”
Labit acknowledged that country commitments didn’t help the trio of Celts during their two seasons in Paris but the disappointment he felt at their failure to adapt to a different environment ran deep. It altered the club’s recruitment policy, too, as Travers explained in September. “We really want players who are ready to serve the club rather than players looking after their own interests,” he said. “The investment of the president – whether it is the recruitment, the training centre, the future stadium – is all about the performance. And too often in the past, we have forgotten that.”
Hence the signing last year of a clutch of top-class players no longer burdened by international commitments: former All Blacks Chris Masoe and Joe Rokocoko, France flanker Yannick Nyanga and, of course, Dan Carter. The Kiwi fly-half arrived at the end of November, a month after steering his country to victory in the World Cup final, and his impact has been immense, and not just on the pitch. “In his first week here Dan spoke to the guys in English – François van der Merwe translated – and he said that the training wasn’t up to standard,” Goosen told me at the start of this year. “I think every guy just lifted a notch because we have so much respect for him.”
But Goosen emphasised that Carter isn’t the only player responsible for Racing finally fulfilling their potential. The “great vibe” in the squad, he explained, is down to everyone pulling together, not to mention the new-look Labit. “I don’t get involved with controversy,” Labit said in January. “These days I only talk about what truly matters to me: my team.”
European Champions Cup final: Racing v Saracens, Sat 14 May, 4.45pm, Lyon. Live on BT Sport and Sky Sports
For the latest Rugby World subscription offers, click here.