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Ulster must get to grips with halting Racing's glory bid

Ulster v Racing 92, Heineken Champions Cup - Pool Four, Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 3.15pm

By Jonathan Bradley

Across the 'ciel et blanc' crest that adorns the Racing 92 jerseys that an expensively assembled squad will wear against Ulster on Saturday is marked the phrase 'depuis 1882'.

For those that didn't take French GCSE, that translates as 'since 1882', an indication of the long history enjoyed by a side who it seems have only recently pulled up a chair at Europe's top table.

The rugby branch of what was originally known as Racing Club actually came along some eight years later than their club badge decrees but, for all the highs and lows since, life in the western suburbs of Paris has never been quite like this.

Granted there was success in the early days - three titles were won between their formation and 1902 - while the glamour of the 'Le Show-Bizz' era is fondly remembered for more than just its solitary domestic crown in 1990.

Indeed the days of Racing's players drinking champagne at half-time, releasing a pop record, and wearing blazers with bow-ties onto the pitch seem positively quaint by the standards of today where the side call home a space age arena recently hired out by Beyonce and Jay-Z.

In a game transformed by professionalism, Racing are perhaps the most ultra-modern, the vast change in Paris largely seen as the product of one man, or perhaps even one man's wallet.

Jacky Lorenzetti made his name in property development - his company, now named Fonica, is one of the biggest in France - and bought Racing in 2006 when they were in the Pro D2. He quickly lifted their standing, enabling them to attract a galaxy of stars in recent years including Dan Carter, whose three year stint at the club came to a close last year.

An interesting insight into the man whose fortune is estimated at beyond £700m has been provided by Ronan O'Gara, the legendary former Irish out-half who was on the staff at Racing before moving on to Crusaders.

"Jacky Lorenzetti recognised that in a city like Paris, that sense of community would be impossible to tap into," he wrote in a column last year.

"What he presented instead was the pledge of sporting theatre Parisians would be proud of, with a team and facilities to match. He has never hidden the overriding fact that Racing 92 is a business, and that its incredible new home in Nanterre, the U Arena, is a business that will have to wash its face.

"It is worth underlining just how good he is in comparison to other French club benefactors. Remember this is a one-man band forking out for everything. Jacky bankrolls the entire Racing 92 operation, so from that point of view, he is extremely patient and pleasant.

"He has massive faith in (his coaches) to run the rugby side of the business for him, which is in stark contrast to many of the egomaniac presidents who can't stop themselves interfering in the rugby side of the game.

"I must admit my gut initially was that he wanted to create all this and then move on from rugby, but his appetite this season and last seems as strong as ever. With the realisation of the U Arena, the obvious next chapter is conquering Europe.

"He wants silverware and winning the Bouclier made him tremendously proud for the fact that it returned the old royalty of French club rugby to their rightful place."

While Racing were promoted back to the top tier in 2009, it has been since the appointment of the "two Laurents" in 2013 that the side have scaled the heights, reaching two Champions Cup finals in three years only to lose to Saracens and last year Leinster, as well as the Top 14 crown mentioned by O'Gara.

Under coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers - the former the man who kicked Colomiers' only points against Ulster in the final of 1999 - the thirst for success has been partially quenched but, for all the money spent and stars acquired, Europe remains the ultimate goal. For a club in possession of such riches with which to lure players, chancing upon the right blend will always be a matter of great importance.

It hasn't always gone to plan and a number of past big name imports didn't appear to have the happiest time in Paris.

Johnny Sexton - World Player of the Year in 2018 - was allegedly described as the "Zlatan Ibrahimovic" of rugby by an unnamed former team-mate after his uneven two-year stay while, on the record, his former coach was hardly complimentary either.

"He didn't always perform for Racing and he knew it," said Labit after Sexton had returned to Leinster. "And it irritated him very much.

"Jonathan had the tendency to employ a rather forceful manner and use a colourful language in the heat of the moment.

"Sometimes it was on the verge of insult. At times, Jonathan was really uncontrollable."

The current crop, headlined by recent imports from this side of the Channel like former Munsterman Simon Zebo and Finn Russell, once of Glasgow, have seemed far more taken with life in the shadow of La Defense.

Zebo's move essentially ushered him into international exile just a year and a half out from a World Cup, and saw him miss out on a Grand Slam but, speaking after the reverse fixture with Ulster back in October, he seemed to have no regrets about his switch.

"It has definitely been everything I thought it would be and more," he said after another try-scoring performance that also drew attention for his celebration over Ulster's Michael Lowry.

"I'm delighted I made the decision. It was a big decision for me to make to come to Paris considering what I had at home but I am very happy I did. They are a great bunch of guys, great coaching team."

It's a similar story from Scottish stand-off Russell who seems to have struck up a good relationship with Zebo as well as French talents such as Teddy Thomas.

"The culture at the club is really good and it reminds me of the one we had at Glasgow, it's like a family and we are all very close," Russell recently told Scrum Magazine. "For me it was very easy to fit in, and a lot of guys speak English very well. To chat in English it really helps a lot. It's been easy for me to settle and basically worry only about rugby."

For Racing of late, more than any other French side, that has meant worrying about securing that yearned for maiden European crown. On Saturday, Ulster will be the latest team to stand in their way.

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