Top 14: Why Racing’s season has gone from bad to worse
It has been a season to forget for Racing 92, with their league form patchy, a poor showing in Europe and problems with their superstar imports
Two months ago this column wondered if Racing 92’s season could get any worse after Johan Goosen’s retirement, the corticosteroids saga and their humiliating exit from the Champions Cup. It could, and it has. First Dan Carter was caught drink-driving on the Champs-Élysées and then his former All Black teammate, Ali Williams, was arrested for buying cocaine on the same street.
The antics of the two Kiwis encapsulate the nightmarish season that 2016-17 has become for Racing president Jacky Lorenzetti. Speaking after Carter’s offence, but before Williams’, he said he felt like a “punch ball”. His mood won’t have improved after watching Racing lose away at relegation-threatened Grenoble on Saturday evening, a defeat that was inevitable once Chris Masoe – yes, another Kiwi – was dismissed after five minutes for a high tackle.
That result leaves Racing in seventh position, still in with a good chance of qualifying for the play-offs, but only eights points ahead of Lyon, in 12th.
What must be causing Lorenzetti sleepless nights is the thought of failing to qualify for next season’s Champions Cup. He moves his club into their new stadium this summer and he needs the allure of Europe’s showpiece competition to put bums on seats and help pay some of the reported €400m construction costs.
But how much has Lorenzetti brought his troubles on himself? One man who might not have much sympathy for the Racing president’s predicament is the club’s former manager, Arnaud Tourtoulou. He was relieved of his duties in June last year, the Monday after Racing had beaten Toulon to win their first Top 14 title in 26 years. Tourtoulou joined Racing in 2011 after a spell as president of Bourgoin, and was described by one French rugby writer as “an important cog…the buffer between the sporting and administration factions”. The official reason for Tourtoulou’s departure was that his contract had expired but some suspect there was more to it than that
Whatever the circumstances behind Tourtoulou’s exit from Racing, his role, according to an article in last week’s L’Equipe, has been filled by people from Foncia, the property management company that Lorenzetti founded more than 40 years ago, and who, according to the newspaper, are “not necessarily au fait with rugby’s customs”.
Then again it’s no-one’s responsibility but the players’ to ensure they don’t get behind the wheel when they’ve been drinking or to go looking for drugs on a night out. Similarly, L’Equipe has alleged that a group of players enjoyed a night of great revelry at a Parisian restaurant just two days before a Champions Cup fixture this season.
The players involved were said to be from Racing’s foreign contingent and the paper claimed a that source within the dressing room had talked of a “fracture” between the French players and the overseas ones, more specifically “the New Zealanders”.
This what wasn’t Lorenzetti envisaged when he signed Carter on a three year deal after the 2015 Rugby World Cup with the Kiwi pocketing a salary of £1.3 million a season. He had visions of Carter bringing to Racing the same success that Jonny Wilkinson delivered to Toulon, True, Carter played his part in the Top 14 triumph but this season he’s looked a shadow of that player, to the point where in Racing’s 23-7 defeat to Glasgow he made no carries, no metres, beat no defenders and managed no offloads.
Last season Carter won fourteen of the eighteen matches he played for Racing, a figure that has fallen in 2016-17 to five wins in fourteen matches. He’s been sidelined in recent weeks with a groin injury but is expected to return for Saturday’s match at home to league leaders La Rochelle. The week after the Parisians travel to Montpellier and then they host Clermont. It’s a trio of matches that will test Racing and Carter, who, for the first time in his career is enduring sustained negative press. It’s a novel experience, as is playing in a struggling team. How Carter reacts will be fascinating.