Off-field troubles add spice to Racing-Stade derby
TOP 14 SPOTLIGHT: The rivalry between Racing 92 and Stade Francais dates back 125 years but rarely will a match between the two Parisian clubs carry such emotion as Sunday's Top 14 clash.
The season has been marked by a botched merger between the two teams which led Racing players to strike and also various other extra-curricular digressions.
Added to that is the fact that Racing and Stade, who played the first ever French rugby final in 1892, are neck-and-neck in the battle for the sixth and final spot in the season-ending play-offs.
Stade, currently seventh in the Top 14 on 54 points, will host Racing, in sixth on 57, at their Jean-Bouin stadium having rebounded from a disastrous start to the season.
And Racing, the reigning champions, have shot up the table thanks to three vital, narrow wins over Clermont (27-24), Pau (34-32) and Toulouse (10-8).
"Of course, there's a particular context, the off-pitch events spice up the game. But that's always been the case for the Parisian derby," said Racing coach Laurent Travers.
"But what makes the game spicier is the fact that come Sunday the two clubs could be playing for qualification for the play-offs,"
Aborted merger to one side, Racing have also been hit this season by Dan Carter being caught drink-driving, All Black teammate Ali Williams arrested for possession of cocaine, Springbok utility back Johan Goosen departing unannounced and a trio of players including Carter still in the radar of France's anti-doping agency after testing positive for corticosteroids following last season's Top 14 final.
"There were a lot of distractions, a lot of setbacks," Carter admitted earlier this month.
"But one thing through all of this - we've stayed tight as a team, with a wonderful spirit. It goes to show the strength of characters we've got on the team,"
Racing have the formbook advantage over Stade, having won the last three derbies, and 10 of the 16 matches since their return to the elite division, including a convincing 34-16 victory at Jean-Bouin in March 2016.
But Stade have regathered themselves since a shock 22-44 loss at Grenoble which left them wallowing in 11th position.
Buoyed by the news that the bombshell March merger talks had been binned after a player revolt, Stade have gone from strength to strength, last week also beating Bath to set up a European Challenge Cup final against Gloucester.
"It's simple," said Racing's Travers, whose side went down to a 54-3 defeat by Montpellier last weekend. "We have two games left to play so we have to approach this derby like a knock-out match,"
Stade's France lock Pascal Pape insisted that the proposed merger had unified the team.
"Each year we do some team building. Not this year, what with the merger, that's cost the club a lot less!" said the player who led the strike.
Champions over the last two seasons as well as local rivals, only one club is likely to reach the play-offs - the perfect setting for a city derby.