Adam Hathaway reports on a visit to a Space Age stadium in Paris last weekend and says Nigel Melville might be worth listening to in his most recent incarnation at the RFU.
The most remarkable thing about Leicester’s 36-26 Champions Cup defeat to Racing 92 didn’t have too much to do with the rugby, it was the ground it was played in – the grandly titled Paris La Defense Arena. If Carlsberg did stadiums and all that………..
RugbySpy has seen a few rugby grounds over the last couple of decades or more, all over the world, but nothing like this place.
Talk about futuristic.
If you ever get the chance to visit the stadium – grab it and get yourself over to Paris. It takes about 25 minutes to get to Nanterre from Gare du Nord, there are a few decent places to eat in the area, which are not too crowded, but there real treat comes when you get inside.
It was the brainchild of Racing 92 owner Jacky Lorenzetti, a billionaire who made his euros in real estate, and it is a brilliantly bonkers place to watch a game of rugby. We wouldn’t mind seeing a gig there either.
RugbySpy has been to Racing’s old ground, Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir, a couple of times. That place was formerly known as Stade de Colombes when it staged the 1924 Olympics which were immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire.
The last time we were there was when Leicester, again, played them last season and the old place was looking its age and the restaurants around the ground were behaving bizarrely – chucking food at you which you hadn’t ordered then presenting you with a bill. The French national rugby team last played there in 1972 and England were pleased to see the back of it as they did not win there from 1964.
The old press facilities were also ramshackle but you got a good view of the pitch but it was time for Racing to change and they have changed their ground all right.
Lorenzetti is an unlikely club owner. He was brought up in Switzerland, made his bundle with his company Foncia, the biggest property management company in France and invested in vineyards.
It was his brothers-in-law who gave him the rugby bug and he took the plunge in 2006 when he bought the club, then known as Racing Metro 92, who were in the French second tier. Lorenzetti has bankrolled the signings of the likes of Johnny Sexton, Gus Pichot, Dan Carter, Dimitri Szarzewski, Juan José Imhoff and Juan Martin Hernández. He has put his money where his mouth is on the playing front.
And now he has helped to get this all-bells-and-whistles stadium off the ground.
From where we were sitting in press box there was a stand to the right with a stage in front of it and deckchairs pitch-side, presumably for corporate.
To our left there was a giant video screen that stretched the width of the pitch and another two screens on either side of that for good measure, but no seats for punters. So there was no danger of not knowing what the score was or missing a replay of a try.
When kickers were aiming at the posts that end the ball would ricochet off the screen which was strange.
And before the match there was the light show which was like something you would see at the O2. It is hardly surprising that the Rolling Stones played the first gig there in October 2017.
But when the lights were rolling you half expected Jean-Michel Jarre to make an appearance and give us a few tunes from his classic album Oxygène. It was like being in a spaceship and it wouldn’t have surprised any of us in the ground if it had taken off.
Then there was a band, through the game there was music even then play was going on and the DJ was definitely a fan of the White Stripes.
Regular readers will know RugbySpy’s views on pre-match entertainment and stadium announcers and they are mostly anti. In fact at some games it is a relief when the match starts just so you can some peace and quiet after some bloke with a microphone has been droning on for hours.
One of RugbySpy’s more curmudgeonly colleagues thought it was over the top in Paris and he may have a point but you don’t have to sit through it very often.
There was not much droning here and it was all pretty entertaining. You might not want to visit this place for every home game but you have got to get there once. Stick it on your bucket list.
The ground holds 40,000 for concerts and just over 30,000 for rugby but there were nowhere near that amount of punters there on Sunday – the official count was 16,538 but they looked like were having fun and so were the players.
There is a roof and it is hot in there so the ball goes further when it is kicked. The artificial pitch makes sure the ball stays dry and the players were willing to run the ball from anywhere and why wouldn’t Racing fancy their chances of chucking it around when they have got Leone Nakarawa and Finn Russell in their side?
Tigers’ fly-half George Ford told us: “It is an arena isn’t it? It doesn’t feel like a rugby stadium as such. It promotes a pretty fast game and you know what you are going to get in terms of weather and pitch, everything, so that is an advantage.
“They have got some world class players who can do some pretty special things.” And their stadium is pretty special too – Racing have been in two of the last three Champions Cup finals and now they have a ground to match.
Leicester played their part scoring four tries, and nicking a bonus point that keeps their hopes of a quarter-final spot just about alive – but first they have got to get rid of Racing at home on Sunday.
The occasion last weekend was certainly nothing like Welford Road on a wet Friday night, or Welford Road on a Sunday. It was certainly like nothing else we have seen in rugby.
Nigel Melville, the acting chief executive of the RFU, chucked a curve ball when he met the media for the first time in his new role – which may eventually become permanent.
The promotion and relegation debate in the Premiership had been raging again with proposals to ring fence the top division, after upping it to 13 teams being mooted.
London Irish, top of the Championship and holders of P Shares, stakes in the league, would be the obvious beneficiaries if they got promoted and the drawbridge was pulled up.
But Melville had another take, and it was an interesting one.
“Conferences are something we may need to look at going forward,” he told us.
“Traditionally everyone said no because it might mean you would lose your regular game against Leicester — that was always the big one where you would be sold out — and maybe we’ve moved on from that.
“You would go to 14 or 16 teams. Two eights would give you a true geographic spread. Two eights would play home and away, then go into quarters, then go into semis. It’s like when they brought play-offs in the Premierships. The reason they did that was because of those overlap games during the Six Nations. You could justify a proper conference structure with playoffs and fewer games.
“You’d have to divide the money by 16, which makes a difference. Sometimes less is more. Do we really need the Anglo Welsh Cup? Is it that important? Are the A League and the Championship doing the same thing? Do we need them?”
All very thought provoking. Imagine if London Irish did come up then teams like Ealing, Jersey, Nottingham, Cornish Pirates and Coventry might want a piece of the action.
There should still be some element of promotion and relegation to and from the conferences but Melville might just have something.
It is sensible so is almost bound not to happen but Melville has seen both ends of the Premiership table as a coach, is a former British & Irish Lion and an ex-England captain.
So he might be worth listening too.