When Racing Metro and Edinburgh were drawn together I was over the moon. As yet, neither club has sought to engage me in some sort of well paid analytical role, asking me to spill the beans on the other, so I’ll spill the beans on both for Scottish Rugby Blog. Frankly, when the draw was made, I assumed that Edinburgh would get stuffed both home and away but a lot has changed since then and I now make Edinburgh slim favourites.
The Racing of last season was a juggernaut that, after finishing 2nd in the Top 14, deserved better than to self-destruct in the Marseille semi-final against Montpellier. But that was all one year ahead of the club’s long-term plan. This season was to be when Racing finally returned to the pinnacle of French rugby after a wait of 21 years.
But things haven’t been going to plan. Recruitment over the summer was frugal and they are now paying for a lack of depth and quality that belies the annual budget of around €16 million. Lying 5th with 5 wins and 5 losses might not seem disastrous but with 3 home losses already (2 league and 1 H Cup), alarm bells are starting to ring.
When other clubs were getting their cheque books out to make the most of the Southern Hemisphere post World Cup exodus, estate agent magnate Jacky Lorenzetti brought in six players, all French and with only one recognisable name: Fabrice Estabanez, who isn’t involved this Friday. Some might laud this prudent approach to building a sustainable squad that doesn’t rely on quick fix star names (indeed, Edinburgh fans will recognise such an attitude). But qualité is qualité and Racing have picked up a few injuries and simply haven’t had the class that they had last year.
Racing once forged a reputation through their back line, famed for their show-bizz approach to the game, pink bow-ties and so on. But since the arrival of Pierre Berbizier, their game plan has become pragmatic in the extreme and relies on forward domination and the best boot in the league, Jonathan W…, no not Jonny Wilkinson, Jonathan Wisniewski. With Lionel Nallet back from New Zealand, the pack should return to the ferocity which lead the team so well last year. Hooker Benjamin Noirot and second rows Jone Qovu and Karim Ghézal are some of the best ball carriers in the league and Grant, McInally and co. will have to look sharp to keep them from building up a head of steam.
Francois Steyn and Benjamin Fall are big injury losses and the replacements Juan Imhoff and Gaëtan Germain are not up to the same standard. Edinburgh’s wide, mobile game should be able to exploit defensive frailties out wide, particularly those of the young pretender to Sireli Bobo, Viremi Vakatawa, even if he more than makes up for it with his idiosyncratic attacking style.
Both sides have inexperience in the backs. Where Edinburgh have Matt Scott and Harry Leonard, Racing have Fijian duo Vakatawa (who announced himself against Leinster around this time last year) and Josh Matavesi.
If Greig Laidlaw comes off the bench, it’ll be interesting to see how he matches up against Mathieu Lorée, a very similar player in style and development. Perhaps they’ll meet on the international stage in a few years time. And if Wisniewski remains on the bench, then Harry Leonard will be hoping his back-row are around when Juan-Martin Hernandez comes flying down his channel, gracefully chipping, weaving and off-loading.
Having lost a home opener in this competition, it is very easy to see Racing’s focus changing to the Top 14, but they also know they need to get back into that winning habit that they engendered last year. Many of the Racing squad will not be relishing the trip to chilly Edinburgh and may be thrown by the odd Murrayfield playing experience.
If I were Edinburgh I’d be looking to run the Racing pack off the park, having a real go and not being drawn in to Racing’s confrontational style. And if I were Racing I’d happily scrummage all day long and batter Edinburgh into submission around the fringes.
Key Match-Up: Juan Martin Hernandez v Harry Leonard
Fraser’s blog can be found at ruckandabard.blogspot.com.
Racing Metro Team: Jonathan Wisniewski, Julien Saubade, Henry Chavancy, Guillaume Bousses, Juan Imhoff, Juan Martin Hernandez, Mathieu Loree, Mikaele Tuugahala, Benjamin Noirot, Johannes Coetzee, Karim Ghezal, Lionel Nallet, John Leo’o, Bernard Le Roux, Sebastien Chabal
Replacements: Thomas Bianchin, Eddy Ben Arous, Juan Pablo Orlandi, Jone Qovu Nailiko, Sebastien Descons, Virimi Vakatawa, Antoine Batut, Remi Vaquiin
Edinburgh Rugby Team: Jim Thompson, Lee Jones, Nick de Luca, Matt Scott, Tim Visser, Harry Leonard, Greig Laidlaw (Capt), Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford, Geoff Cross, Esteban Lozada, Grant Gilchrist, Netani Talei, Roddy Grant, Stuart McInally
Replacements: Steven Lawrie, Kyle Traynor, Lewis Niven, Steven Turnbull, Ross Rennie, Mike Blair, James King, Tom Brown
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)