Racing Métro seem a little derailed
He should be concentrating on facing Munster but instead coach Gonzalo Quesada is answering questions about his future, writes MARK RODDEN
AFTER WATCHING his side lose a Top 14 game they should have won on Saturday, Gonzalo Quesada cut straight to the chase.
“Go ahead,” the Racing Métro head coach told reporters after the 16-12 loss to Montpellier in Paris. “Talk about coaches.”
The former Argentinian outhalf, whose Racing team host Munster in the Heineken Cup on Saturday, was referring to a rumour that has dogged him since the summer. A rumour that was finally – albeit partially – put to bed yesterday.
Although Quesada only took on his new role in the close season, the Castres coaching duo of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers have been strongly linked with a move to big-spending Racing. Out of contract next summer, the pair ended speculation over their future yesterday by announcing that they would be leaving for “a new adventure” come the end of the season.
Labit and Travers led Castres to the Top 14 play-offs in each of the last three seasons and the consensus now is that only a last-minute change of heart will prevent them from pitching up at Racing Métro next season.
The rumours intensified in recent weeks after Racing Métro’s results took a turn for the worse. The problem for Quesada is that, with league rules stipulating that departing staff are banned from speaking publicly until the transfer window opens in April, the speculation is likely to follow him for much of the season.
The assumption is that Quesada would still be offered a role at the club next season if Labit and Travers move to Paris, though it is hard to see an experienced coaching team playing second fiddle to one who is still learning his trade.
Until now Quesada has toed the party line and been as amenable and open as ever with the media. But following a heavy defeat at newly-promoted Grenoble and the loss, via a charged-down try, to Montpellier, the situation is clearly not helping.
“If poor Benji (Benjamin Fall) hadn’t been charged down, we’d be analysing a superb win and you wouldn’t be talking to me about the context,” he said on Saturday.
The ongoing uncertainty is hardly ideal preparation for the Heineken Cup opener against Munster. But what better way to boost morale than to win a glamour tie which was moved to the Stade de France because of the notoriety of the opposition?
“We’re going to give it our all knowing that this match will be key to the rest,” Quesada told The Irish Times. “If it goes well, as we hope it will, then the Heineken Cup will still be a target.”
Quesada took over as head coach after Pierre Berbizier moved upstairs at the end of last season and the 38-year-old has Racing playing a more adventurous style. Until their two most recent defeats it was working too, with Racing winning four of their first six games and coming within a whisker of ending Clermont Auvergne’s three-year unbeaten home record.
Quesada’s cause has not been helped by some long-term injuries – notably to outhalves Jonathan Wisniewski and Benjamin Dambielle – while Juan Martin Hernandez was one of four Argentinian players at the Rugby Championship who will only return to training on Thursday.
Scrumhalf Mathieu Belie filled in against Montpellier, while former Bath number 10 Olly Barkley, who arrived as a ‘medical joker’ last week and is eligible for the Heineken Cup, featured for 20 minutes.
Quesada, the former France kicking coach, replaced backs coach Simon Mannix last November, when he was abruptly dismissed after falling out of favour with Berbizier. Sebastien Chabal was another to fall foul of the old regime, while Lionel Nallet and South African Francois Steyn also left during the close season. France internationals Dimitri Szarzewski and Luc Ducalcon arrived to bolster the front row.
One of many former colleagues who will be happy to see Mannix return to Paris is Racing forwards coach Simon Raiwalui, who played with the new Munster assistant at Sale before they both helped the French club climb from the second tier to the Top 14 play-offs.
“He’s a real character on the sidelines,” Raiwalui said. “All the boys know him quite well because he’s a players’ coach. He’s obviously a back line coach so we know that the Munster backs are going to be well organised. He works a lot with the defence as well. I’ve watched them and they’re very organised in defence.
“Paul O’Connell’s been out for a while so I think the younger guys have really stepped up. And that’s where someone like Simon Mannix is really good. He’s a real people guy and gives players a lot of confidence.”
Like Mannix, Quesada might run into a couple of familiar faces, having kicked 23 points to help knock Ireland out of the 1999 World Cup. Four years later at the World Cup, he played his last international game as Ireland got their revenge.
“They were always really nice matches,” he said. “We’ve always felt that we share the state of mind, the spirit between the players, the commitment, the humility and the hunger that the Irish players show on the pitch.
“I think this courage resembles Argentinian rugby a lot. It’s the same for the provinces. When you see what happens around Munster – the strong identity, the strong values that unite the players – then we know that we’ll have to prepare for a very tough match.”
For the sake of his own future, Quesada must hope his side can rise to the challenge.