This Sunday at 5 p.m., the Ile-de-France club receives Clermont as part of the 11th day of Top 14. The opportunity to definitely celebrate its 140th anniversary.
1892: forever the first
If the first rugby club in France was created in Le Havre in 1872, Racing – which was called Racing Club at the time – became France’s first champion club in 1892, winning the final in the final against … the Stade Français Paris Rugby (4-3). The following season, the Parisian neighbor and rival will take his revenge. It should be noted that, until 1898, the competition could only be contested by Parisian teams. A man alone symbolizes this glorious first of the Ile-de-France club: Frantz Reichel. After discovering rugby in 1888, he would become a key figure in rugby in France.
Player, accomplished sportsman (he participated in the 1894 Olympic Games over 110 m hurdles), manager (creation of numerous sports federations, participated in the creation of the French National Olympic Committee) but also a journalist for Le Figaro. He notably covered the first match between the Blues and the All Blacks in 1906. A youth category (juniors over 19) bears his name. After its first coronation in 1892, Racing won two other titles in 1900 and 1902.
1990: the breath of fresh air of the “Showbizz”
In the early 90s, carried by a golden generation (Mesnel, Blanc, Cabannes, Serrière…), the Racing Club de France dusted off the traditional and serious image of rugby in France. The club, which plays at the Yves-du-Manoir stadium in Colombes, offers an alert and fiery game, well supported by a rough and fierce pack. But it is for these unforgettable pranks that the Racingmen are also talked about: they do not hesitate to play with berets against the Basques of Bayonne, to stick a pink fish in the back on April 1st or to paint themselves the face in black protesting racial slurs was not one of their victims.
Looking back, Franck Mesnel remembers this blessed period, without wanting to compare with the current era: “We have seen too many old people around us embittered, who kept telling us that it was better before. We swore never to fire old idiots!” After a defeat in the final against Toulon in 1987 (12-15), Racing won the fourth title in its history by dominating Agen, after extra time, in 1990 (22-12).
2010: resounding return to the top flight
To date, Racing 92 remains the only promoted club to have played in the final stages of the Top 14 upon its return to the top flight. After the glorious decade of “Showbiz”, the shift to professionalism has done damage. The Ile-de-France club left the elite twice (1996, 2000) and financial survival went through the merger with the US Metro in 2001. “They say that great teams never die, that’s not true. We saw it with Béziers or Lourdes. These teams died in the fight for finance”, underlines Philippe Guillard, former whimsical three-quarters of the club who became a successful director. The founder of the real estate group Foncia, Jacky Lorenzetti – seen in the stands of the Yves-du-Manoir stadium – was then approached by Franck Mesnel and Eric Blanc who had long held the club at arm’s length. The businessman becomes majority shareholder (61%) in May 2006.
Under the leadership of Pierre Berbizier – nicknamed “Jesus” by Mesnel -, the Ciel et Blancs found themselves in the elite in 2009-2010 and qualified for the final stages. They will lose in the play-offs at Clermont, the end of the match will be stormy with Pierre Berbizier who violently attacks Pierre-Yves Revol, then president of the League, after a controversial arbitration. “You don’t need to see Mr. Revol to see those fake ass smiles. We needed to find each other. Afterwards, the thanks of Mr. Revol… Let him first go to the referee’s locker room”Berbize plague.
2016: Barcelona’s tour de force
Present every year at the end of the final stages (which is always the case), the Racingmen struggle to make the difference and win in the playoffs. Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, who arrived from Castres where they won the Brennus in 2013, were then lucky to have several renowned former All Blacks in their squad (Dan Carter, Joe Rokocoko and Chris Masoe), who pushed the team to the top. “We lacked players like that, who are able to show the way, to show the way on the pitch. But especially off the field. You only see the “field” part of what they can bring. What interests us is what they do outside“, explained at the time Laurent Labit, who became coach of the attack of the XV of France.
The Hauts-de-Seine team reached the Champions Cup final for the first time in their history, but lost in Lyon (with an injured Carter) against the Saracens of Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje (21-9) . A month later, Racing 92 climbed to the final again, in the Top 14 this time (relocated to Camp Nou in Barcelona, because of the Euro football tournament in France), to challenge Rugby Club Toulonnais.
It all started badly with the rapid expulsion of Ile-de-France scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, cursed during major events, for a dangerous tackle on Australian Matt Giteau. But, instead of precipitating the fall of Ciel et Blanc, this fact of the match will galvanize Racing, which overthrows the RCT, with in particular a tour de force from winger Juan Imhoff who helps out in the scrum and a superb solo try by Joe Rokokoko.
“We have stars and soldiers. But I think there we had more soldiers than stars. In this case, when you have players like Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko, it pulls everyone up. Humanly, on a created something. Today we didn’t show talent, we showed work, work and work. And, as we say in Spanish, this team has “huevos” (eggs)… Big “huevos”!” called the totemic Imhoff afterwards. A tribute to their glorious elders, the players entered the lawn in blazers and drank champagne at half-time. To date, this remains the only major title of the Lorenzetti period Racing.
2017: change of era with the Arena
This was Jacky Lorenzetti’s big project when he took over Racing 92: to build a multimodal hall to host both rugby matches and shows. Which makes some teeth cringe. For the first time, rugby becomes an indoor sport, independent of weather conditions. And, proof of the primacy of extra-sporting events, the acoustics were specially studied during the construction of the building by Christian de Portzamparc, the architect who won the Pritzker Prize (the Nobel Prize for architects) in 1994 and the Grand Prix de urban planning in 2004, which notably imagined the City of Music in Paris (Parc de la Villette). The room, built in a U, is equipped with a huge screen of 2200 m², the largest in Europe.
On a synthetic turf, premium is given to attacking play and speed. A double-edged sword: Racing 92 has thus suffered several notable defeats in its Arena and the teams that travel to Nanterre, behind the Grande Arche in La Défense, bravely play their luck and let go. In the stands, the Alto-Séquanais club certainly welcomes many more people than at Yves-Du-Manoir, but the Arena is large and its bays often seem empty. During the 2021-2022 season, Racing 92 gathered 157,000 paying spectators in the league, the seventh best attendance in the Top 14, far behind Bordeaux-Bègles (312,000 spectators) or Toulouse (245,000 spectators).
Faced with the growing success of its enclosure (which offers a gauge between the Accor Arena and the Stade de France), Racing is increasingly forced to relocate its meetings (Vannes, Nantes, Le Mans) when shows take place. Next example to date: Laurent Travers’ players will begin their Champions Cup campaign, against the formidable Leinster, on December 10… in Le Havre.