After the 19-16 semi-final win over Leicester in April, Joe Rokocoko stated that if Racing 92 did go on to win this tournament it would make for “another fairytale ending” for Dan Carter. Racing will be hoping that as with Leinster in 2009 and then Toulon in 2013, it is just the beginning of a period of European dominance.
When Jacky Lorenzetti became majority shareholder and president of Racing Métro 92 in 2006 he outlined an ambitious plan to revive the struggling Parisian club. Promotion to the Top 14 was sought in three years and then the title in five. There were plans for the construction of a modern training centre, upgrading of the academy and the Arena 92 project – a multipurpose stadium that could diminish the need for a benefactor to bankroll the club.
Lorenzetti also made it clear that Racing’s spirit and history couldn’t be sacrificed during this evolution, with a statement that Les Ciel et Blanc jersey wouldn’t change – a likely dig at rivals Stade Français.
Former France and Italy coach Pierre Berbizier was hired for the 2007-08 season along with Agustin Pichot, Sireli Bobo, Jone Qovu, Simon Raiwalui, Franck Tournaire, David Auradou, Andrea Lo Cicero and more.
Racing weren’t the only club with grand plans in the Pro D2 though. New Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal recruited Victor Matfield, Anton Oliver, George Gregan and Andrew Mehrtens and saw his side top the league and seal promotion to the Top 14. Racing Métro were a win behind in second place, but lost the playoff final to Mont-de-Marsan which delayed their return to the top flight by another year. The eventual promotion saw further high-profile recruits arrive with Lionel Nallet, Sebastien Chabal and Francois Steyn all signing up.
As both the outspoken Boudjellal and more discreet Lorenzetti and took charge of their clubs at roughly the same time, there has been a tendency to compare their clubs’ success since 2006.
Toulon won three consecutive Heineken Cups, were runners-up in the Challenge Cup twice and reached the Top 14 on three occasions, winning it in 2013-14. After reaching the Top 14 in 2009-10, Racing have lost seven of their ten knockout games, with this being their first final. The quarter-final win over Toulon this year in this competition was therefore significant – not just for ending the three-time champions reign but also for the opportunity to overtake the team that set the pace back in 2008.
After several years of regular top six finishes that were low on entertainment and followed up by a subsequent playoff loss at the business end of the season, there was drastic overhaul of the club for the 2013-14 campaign.
In came the former Castres coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers along with Soane Tonga’uiha, Brian Mujati, Virgile Lacombe, Davit Khinchagishvili, Juande Kruger, Wenceslas Lauret, Dan Lydiate, Jonny Sexton, Jamie Roberts, Adrien Plante, Benjamin Lapeyre and Marc Andreu. There were 19 players that either retired or moved to other clubs.
The following year saw the arrival of Antonie Claassen, Brice Dulin, Anton Peikrishvili, Teddy Thomas, Luke Charteris, Casey Laulala and Johan Goosen. The departures included Antoine Battut, Benjamin Fall, Jonathan Wisnieweski, Jone Qovu and Masi Matadigo.
This season Racing brought in Yannick Nyanga, Dan Carter, Chris Masoe, Manuel Carizza, Ben Tameifuna, Joe Rokocoko, Remi Tales, Martin Castrogiovanni and saw 13 players leave – including many that had joined in 2013-14.
In a 2015 interview with Midi Olympique, Travers said “We really want players who are ready to serve the club rather than players looking after their own interests. 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.”
The two Laurents now have a squad that is a combination of trusted former Castres players from the 2012-13 title-winning season (Classen, Tales, Andreu, Dulin), home-grown talent such as Camille Chat, Henry Chavancy, Louis Dupichot, a group that were at the club before the recruitment overdrive (Eddy Ben Arous, Bernard Le Roux, Franço van der Merwe, Juan Imhoff etc) and then the New Zealand signings of Ben Tameifua, Chris Masoe, Casey Laulala, Joe Rokocoko and Dan Carter.
Understandably the signing of Carter attracted plenty of attention and the World Cup winner / leading Test points scorer is guaranteed to give merchandise sales a boost and bump up the profile of the club. Recruiting a player of his standing also adds credibility (or at least the perception of credibility) to the work being done at Racing.
According to Lorenzetti, he ruled out signing Jonny Wilkinson in 2009 due to concerns over his fitness. As he put it last year, “I’m not a poker player. Mourad played and won.” In the 2012-13 European campaign, Wilkinson kicked all 21 of Toulon’s points in the quarter-final, all 24 in the semi-final and 11 of their 16 points in the final. Having missed out on a player with that ability to influence the key matches and then not had the desired returns from Sexton, Lorenzetti were clearly keen to secure Carter’s signature. Looking at the exclusive club of five players to score over 1000 International points, Racing have Carter (1598 points) and O’Gara (1083) currently involved with their set-up.
The addition of Chris Masoe to the squad this year has also been significant. He carried 17 times and made 10 tackles in the win over Toulon and then put in a shift of 18 runs and 23 tackles against Leicester. Allowing for the caveat that those numbers don’t reflect effectiveness, it can still be noted that Masoe has a proven track record in ‘big games’. Coaches Travers and Labit know that from their Castres days together and of his role as a dressing room leader. He missed the 2013-14 knockouts but started the 2013 and 2015 finals for Toulon.
The Racing coaches probably wouldn’t have expected the same output from another Toulon recruit – Martín Castrogiovanni, but they couldn’t have predicted he would ditch the semi-final, nor his Alan Garner impression in Vegas. When Laurent Labit spoke to Midi Olympique after that match he revealed that the coaches were under pressure and had they lost against Leicester, he believed people would have said he and Travers couldn’t manage international players and had shown their limits. Castrogiovanni’s trip to Vegas would have added to that negative perception and Labit’s view was that “I can not accept that someone plays with my career”.
Below are the Racing 92 starters from the pool stage and previous two knockout rounds with some assumptions about the preferred picks if everyone was fit and available. The injuries to Laulala and Chavancy saw an unexpected position shift for the in-form Goosen to 13. Both he and Dumoulin have kept their places for this match with Chavancy getting a spot on the bench.
(Racing 92 European games 2015-16)
The combinations used in European games haven’t appeared that often in the Top14 this season. The World Cup and Six Nations are a factor in that, but it is also true that Lorenzetti’s funding has now assembled a squad with enough depth to challenge on two fronts. As an example Antonie Claassen has only played 79 mins in Europe but has racked up 1183 mins (20 games / 15 starts) in the league. Juandre Kruger has just 9 minutes in European competition compared to 594 mins (13 games / 6 starts) in the Top14.
From the 2010-11 to 2013-14 season , Racing won 7 and drew 1 of their 24 matches in this competition – by an average score of 18-25.
It has been 11 wins and 2 draws from the following 15 games though, at an average score of 26-12.
Early issues with adapting to the pace and intensity of the tournament have been resolved and the Parisian side have established an impressive 1st half record in the previous two seasons, only conceding 3,3,6,0,0,3,6,0,3,3,3,0,3,10,6 points before the break.
It has been a different story in the Top 14, with the 2nd half proving to be their strength. Since December, they have trailed at halftime in 11 of their 14 league games by an average score of 10-13 and won the 2nd half 11/14 matches by 13-7.
Top seed after the pool stage last year, Racing were beaten in a home quarter-final by Saracens courtesy of a late Marcelo Bosch penalty. It saw a second half performance that Saracens coach Mark McCall described as “as courageous, brave and hard working as I’ve seen” and perhaps revealed a lack of composure in the hosts.
While reaching the European knockout stage is a new experience for Racing, it has become a habit for Saracens – with a quarter-final appearance in five consecutive seasons and four semi-finals. Clermont and Toulon (both twice) have been the sides to knock them out of the tournament in that period and their performances against the top French teams can act as a measure of how far they have improved.
In January 2011, Clermont won 24-14 at Watford against Saracens with McCall lamenting afterwards: “it is not a level playing field, particularly when you include the gap that exists between English and French clubs in terms of squad size and you then compare our salary cap with theirs….It’s very difficult to compete against a team, for example, with Clermont’s resources.”
Saracens lost again to the same team in 2012, with McCall saying: “It was pretty sobering… It was definitely a level up from what we experience week-in week-out in the Premiership. We came up against an outstanding team who were incredibly motivated….They played a great game and we couldn’t cope. …You could see the difference in the salary cap as soon as you looked on the pitch. The stats don’t lie and it is becoming increasingly difficult for English teams to get into the semi-finals”
After the 24-12 semi-final loss against Toulon in 2013, the Saracens coach stated: “We did a lot of good things, but at our club we talk about growth and progress and when we look back we were second best by miles against Clermont, and it doesn’t feel like that this time. Either side could have won it but our growth and progress was there for everyone to see today”.
Having been “sucked into a game we didn’t want to play” and died “a slow death” against Toulouse in the pool stage in 2013-14, Saracens then destroyed old foes Clermont by 46-6 in the semi-final that season with the now retired Jacques Burger making 27 tackles. They lost the final 23-6 against Toulon, unable to find a way through the defence of an “exceptional side today who were on top of their game”.
Last season Saracens beat Clermont 30-23 at home and lost 18-6 away in the pool stage with a 13-9 defeat against the same opponent in the semi-final. Unlike those earlier knockout defeats against that side, there was a relatively positive message from McCall afterwards “I thought the effort and many, many aspects of the performance were phenomenal…..We made Clermont play a game that they didn’t really want to play…..The game was on a knife-edge all the way through. We made maybe a few too many errors at crucial times, but in terms of the big things that we judge ourselves on, we were magnificent.”
Oyonnax and more impressively Toulouse were beaten comfortably in the pool stage this season and gone are the complaints about not being able to compete with the French powerhouses. Ignore the Six Nations period and Saracens have won an impressive 21 of 22 matches this season by an average score of 31-13.
While Racing 92 have brought in experience in the form of Masoe and Carter, Saracens have a group that have learnt how to win these knockout games together. Alex Goode, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Chris Wyles, Richard Wigglesworth, Charlie Hodgson, Schalk Brits, Will Fraser, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, George Kruis, Jackson Wray were all in the squad that lost the 2012 quarter-final against Clermont.
Going through the list of Premiership players with highest win percentage (and only considering those with over 22 league appearances), there are a number of current Saracens players – Mako Vunipola 83% (from 65 matches), Owen Farrell 82% (83), Petrus du Plessis 80% (89), Kelly Brown 78% (87), George Kruis 78% (81), Richard Barrington 77% (52), Schalk Brits 77% (120), Jamie George 76% (100), Maro Itoje 76% (29), Will Fraser 75% (57), Brad Barritt 75% (124).
There is also a group that recently experienced success with England and returned with their reputations enhanced. Billy Vunipola averaged 19 carries for 67 metres during the Six Nations while between them Itoje and Kruis accounted for 10 lineout steals and moved ahead of what would have been perceived starters in Launchbury, Lawes etc.
The Saracens European starting XV had a settled look this year, with rotation in rounds 4 and 6.
(Saracens, European games 2015-16)
While Saracens do have that established squad rotation policy and lost players during the Six Nations (rounds 10-17), it can be seen below that the starting teams named for Northampton away (round 4), Wasps away (round 7), Leicester home (round 8), Exeter home (round 18) and Bath away (round 19) were pretty close to the preferred European XV.
In 2014, Saracens chairman Nigel Wray told the Telegraph “I was guilty as anyone of cocking it up. I was too interested in getting involved in signing players, looking for the glamour moment”. That realisation about recruitment policy is similar to the comments from Racing’s Travers – it is just that Saracens arrived there first. The Saracens starting XV for their semi-final had an average of 116 club appearances, for Racing it was 70.
Looking at Saracens tries scored in the Premiership in recent seasons, 2009-10 = 39, 2010-11 = 35, 2011-12 = 35, 2012-13 = 41, 2013-14 = 68, 2014-15 = 70, 2015-16 = 60 , there is the evidence that they have evolved their attack in the past few years. That is personified in the difference in Owen Farrell’s game, with the fly-half now operating far closer to the gainline. In the 2013-14 season, Farrell averaged 5 runs for 18.2 metres, 0.6 clean breaks and 0.6 defenders beaten per European game. This campaign it has been 5.5 runs for 34.8m, 1.3 clean breaks and 2.1 defenders beaten per Euro match.
After scoring an average of just 1.2 tries per match in both the 2012-13 and 2013-14 Top14 season, Racing 92 have also improved their scoring rate and again it could be said they are a year or so behind their final opponents in that.
The accepted view is that finals are generally low scoring, with a fear of losing and desire to keep errors low limiting ambitions. There has been an average of 38.2 points in the previous 20 European Cup finals with a high of 64 in 2001 and low of 17 in 2000. The average winning margin has been 7.4 points with the majority of the large margin victories involving a multiple winner (Wasps by 16 in 2007, Leinster by 11 and 28 in 2011 and 12, Toulon by 17 in 2014). The average tries per final is 2.5 with 1.9 from 1996-2010 and then 4.2 in the previous five.
Referee Nigel Owens has been in charge of 62 matches in this competition since the 2007-08 final, with an average of 36.6 points in those games. It is 38.6 points if just taking his 16 knockout games in this period. Saracens have won their previous 3 matches with him officiating – 46-6 against Clermont, 12-11 against this opponent last year and 28-17 against Toulouse. Racing have been reffed by Owens in four games since 2014-15 – a 32-8 win at Northampton, that Saracens QF loss, a 9-9 draw at Northampton this season and the 19-16 semi-final win over Leicester last month.
Toulon had a 50% goal kicking rate in their 3 point defeat against Racing 92 in the quarter-final, while Leicester conceded 23 turnovers in their 3 point semi-final loss against that opponent. Would trust Saracens to improve on both of those areas and both their consistent season form and fact that 14 of the squad were involved with the 2014 final should provide confidence going into the match.
Racing 92: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Johannes Goosen, 12 Alexandre Dumoulin, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Francois van der Merwe, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski (c), 1 Eddy Ben Arous
Replacements: 16 Virgile Lacombe, 17 Khatchik Vartanov, 18 Luc Ducalcon, 19 Manuel Carizza, 20 Antonie Claassen, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Henry Chavancy
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Petrus Du Plessis, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Juan Figallo, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Marcelo Bosch