Paris putting a spring in the step of Wales internationals

By Dafydd PritchardBBC Wales Sport
Racing Metro
Racing Metro reached the French Top 14 play-off semi-finals last season

Racing Metro is a quintessential French rugby club - but lately it has developed a strong Welsh accent.

That is because Racing's star-studded squad includes four current Wales internationals - Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate, Mike Phillips and Luke Charteris.

As the quartet wander towards reception before training, there is no mistaking you are in France at Racing's enormous and classy training base in Paris.

Built only two years ago in a leafy neighbourhood, it boasts vast living areas for the players, two restaurants, a youth academy, several pitches and a gym which is bigger than some clubs' entire training grounds.

Dan Lydiate
Dan Lydiate is learning French in "baby-steps"

With walls adorned in Racing's iconic sky blue-and-white hoops, branding is proud and prominent - but also subtle and, in the best French tradition, stylish.

At reception, there is a collection of special edition wine bottles from the vineyards belonging to club president Jacky Lorenzetti, while hanging on the walls are tailored Racing shirts and blazers.

"It's all pretty chic," grins Lydiate, the farmer's son from mid-Wales.

French lessons

Having joined the same time as centre Roberts last summer, Lydiate has been in Paris a year - and the flanker is still adapting to the French way of life.

"It takes a bit of getting used to. The facilities here are awesome, so you can't fault that," he says.

"The language barrier is there but we have lessons so I'm picking it up slowly, baby-steps.

"We do have lessons together. There are two groups - the more advanced and the ones who struggle a bit - and I'm in the latter group.

Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts in Monaco for the Grand Prix
Life in the fast lane... Racing team-mates Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts in Monaco for the grand prix

"We'll get there eventually, but is a tough language to learn, especially if you're not the best linguist in the first place."

The language is less of an issue for the most recent of the Welsh arrivals, giant lock Luke Charteris.

Having spent two years at Perpignan before joining Racing at the end of last season, Charteris has grown fond of the Gallic lifestyle.

It also helps that his wife, Natalie, speaks fluent French.

"She sorts out all the stuff that would take me, Mike, Dan or Jamie a month to work out. It makes settling in easier," says Charteris.

"After two years at Perpignan, my French is getting there but it's definitely not at that level yet.

"I'd like to stay in France - it is just the lifestyle and everything outside of rugby that is so good here.

"There are not many jobs where you get to travel around and live in other countries, so I want to make the most of it for as long as I can."

Luke Charteris faces a scrum of cameramen during a Wales media session
Charteris enjoys the French way of life, away from the spotlight of Welsh rugby

Parisian lifestyle

Charteris' view on playing in France is a neat summary of the Welsh quartet's approach to life on the other side of the Channel.

As well as competing in one of the most demanding - and lucrative - leagues in the world, the players can also immerse themselves in one of Europe's most culturally vibrant cities.

"Certainly I'm enjoying my time," says Roberts.

"I'm enjoying the banter with the guys and travelling France - that's what life is about.

"Ultimately, I'm enjoying improving as a player. I want to play for Wales as long as I can and win things with Racing Metro."

During his time with the Cardiff Blues, Roberts spoke openly about his ambitions of playing abroad and exploring a new country.

Joining Racing has allowed him to do that, though there is no doubt why Roberts and his countrymen have ended up at this particular club: they all want to win.

Mike Phillips ready to put the ball into a scrum
Mike Phillips moved to Racing Metro after his contract with Bayone was terminated

Fierce will to win

Racing have invested heavily over the past few seasons, both on the pitch and off it - as their sumptuous training facilities demonstrate - and it began to pay dividends last term.

After a slow start when a talented but unfamiliar squad took time to gel, les Ciels et Blancs gathered momentum in the second half of the season and reached the French Top 14 play-off semi-finals.

It was at this time Racing's Welsh contingent had grown to three, scrum-half Phillips joining midway through the campaign after his contract at Bayonne had been terminated.

"Racing found it tough early on in the season. I don't know why they managed to turn it around - maybe that's just a coincidence," he says bursting into laughter, jokingly pointing to himself as the catalyst for Racing's improvement.

It is, of course, tongue-in-cheek from Phillips, though his fierce will to win is an asset to a Racing side desperate to win a first French championship since 1990.

"We had a fantastic end to last season and this season we hope to go two better and win it, but it's tough," says Roberts.

"The quality of players, the quality of teams is relentless.

"The best teams aren't in cycles - the best teams are consistently at the top and, as a club here, that's what we're trying to develop."

It promises to be another battle royal at the summit of the Top 14, with holders and double European champions Toulon the team to topple.

And if Racing are to be found on a podium lifting the trophy next May, Wales will know it had more than a small say in their success.