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Dublin: 15 °C Saturday 21 September, 2019

Millions of Lorenzetti's euros have gone in but Racing's rise is impressive

Lolo and Toto, the head coaches, have done an impressive job with the Parisian club.

LAURENT LABIT AND Laurent Travers, Racing 92′s co-head coaches, like to play the good cop, bad cop routine from time to time.

While you might expect the forwards specialist, Travers, to be the one barking at players – particularly given that he seems to perform that role on the touchline during games – both of the Frenchmen have emotive and technical qualities.

Labit is known as ‘Lolo’ to Racing’s players, while Travers goes by the nickname ‘Toto’ – a handy way of making sure les deux Laurents know who their charges are referring to during training.

Donnacha Ryan congratulated by coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers Travers and Labit congratulate Donnacha Ryan after the semi-final win over Munster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

French coaches are very often looked down on in European rugby, seen as behind the times, and while that may well be true in many instances, the Racing pair have earned serious respect.

Labit, a former fullback who played for Castres and Colomiers, and Travers, an ex-hooker who won the Heineken Cup with Brive, first teamed up as a coaching combination at Montauban in 2005.

By the end of that first season together, they had guided Montauban to promotion from the Pro D2 and within two years of being back in the top flight, they had qualified the club for the Heineken Cup.

They moved on to Castres in 2009 and within four years had guided the small-town club to a first Top 14 trophy in 20 years.

Les deux Laurents had already agreed to join Racing before that league title was secured and their good form continued with the move to Paris in 2013, as they coached the club towards Top 14 success in 2016, the same year they brought Racing into the Champions Cup final for the first time ever.

Now, with a second European final in three years and Racing into a home semi-final in the Top 14, their record looks exceptional. There is an expectation in France that Lolo and Toto will coach France at some stage too, their rise making that prospect seem somewhat inevitable.

The fact that Labit and Travers are in charge of Racing is just one strand in the club’s consistent growth over the past decade or so.

Champions of France in 1990 during ‘Le Show-Bizz’ era, Racing dropped down the divisions thereafter and didn’t recover until current president Jacky Lorenzetti bought a majority stake in the club in 2006.

Jacky Lorenzetti Lorenzetti before the rescheduled match with Munster in 2017. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Having made his fortune in real estate – mainly as the founder of Foncia – the Paris native began pumping money into the club and they were Pro D2 champions by 2009, their return to the top flight bringing even more stars to Racing.

But it was the appointment of Labit and Travers in 2013 that kick-started the stretch of the journey that has resulted in them becoming a more consistent force that now looks likely to compete year-on-year.

Ronan O’Gara made an impact as defence coach during his stint, while also lifting the profile of the club in Ireland, and Johnny Sexton followed. Soon, Simon Zebo will further deepen the connection.

It would be parochial in the extreme to claim that the Irish influence has been integral – the French media seem to enjoy labelling Sexton’s two-year stint a failure – but those ties make Racing all the more interesting for fans on these shores.

Lorenzetti is different to some other, more outspoken, presidents in the Top 14 and by all accounts he stays well away from the rugby side of things, aware that he has no expertise whatsoever.

His passion and love for the club is obvious to the players at Racing and the millions of euros Lorenzetti has sunk into the club and will continue to sink in are evidence of his desire for them to achieve more and more.

The president has been smart as well as generous. Racing moved to a world-class training facility in the leafy banlieue of Le Plessis-Robinson in the south of Paris in 2012 and a familial spirit has built there in the six years since.

The club’s highly-impressive indoor U Arena opened in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris, last year and is much more than a rugby stadium.

A general view of the U Arena before the match The U Arena is high-tech and futuristic. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The idea is that U Arena is almost a venue first and a rugby stadium second. Lorenzetti believes that the money Racing will make from hosting major events and concerts at the U Arena will mean his personal investment into the club won’t need to be as high in the future. Indeed, the early suggestion is that he will eventually be paid back in full.

The fact that a Beyonce and Jay-Z concert at the U Arena last weekend meant Racing had to move their Top 14 clash with Agen west to the town of Vannes didn’t sit too well with some of their supporters, but such is modern rugby.

Racing, despite their history and recent success, are still building their fanbase but there is much to like about the club, even when their rise has been bankrolled by a millionaire.

The major blot on Lorenzetti’s copy is that he attempted to merge Racing with Stade Français last year, only to be met with an entirely predictable and justified backlash from the fans of both clubs.

Even in that mad idea was a romanticism, Lorenzetti understanding the ‘Show-Bizz’ history of Racing and Stade Français’ similar penchant for the extravagant during the Max Guazzini years.

Lorenzetti learned a harsh lesson with that episode but, otherwise, his ambitions for Racing are turning to reality on the pitch.

With les deux Laurents guiding the rugby side of the project, the Parisians are in fine nick and even if they fall to Leinster tomorrow, as expected, it looks as though they are very much here to stay in the upper echelons of European rugby.

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Murray Kinsella

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