"It’s like playing rugby in a nightclub" - when razzmatazz and rugby collide in Paris

'It’s like playing rugby in a nightclub' - when razzmatazz and rugby collide in Paris
Racing 92’s spectacular La Défense Arena opened in 2017 and cost €360m to build. It can hold 32,000 fans for matches and 40,000 for concerts. Picture: Getty Images.

Jacky Lorenzetti, the billionaire owner of Racing 92, knew that a conventional rugby stadium would do little to attract Parisians. So, when he set about finding a home for a club in which he had already invested multiple millions, razzmatazz, rather than rugby, took precedence.

Redeveloping Stade Yves-du-Manoir, the 1924 Olympic stadium in Colombes, in west Paris, which was Racing 92’s home for many years, was never an option, not least as it is off the beaten track and public transport is poor.

The Parisians like things on their doorstep (a short hop from a train, ideally) and Lorenzetti knew that, in a city in which soccer is top-dog on the sporting front and where there are many other attractions competing for disposable income, he needed to bring rugby up to a different level.

Signing the top stars of global rugby wouldn’t even be enough, so when Lorenzetti, estimated to be worth €4bn, from the success of his property firms, became aware of a potential site in La Défense, in Nanterre, he jumped at the opportunity.

La Défense, about six kilometres west and within sight of the Eiffel Tower, is Europe’s largest purpose-built business district, with 19 skyscrapers among 72 glass-and-steel buildings, on a site of 1,400 acres accommodating 180,000 workers each day. An open-air museum is among the attractions that bring in eight million tourists each year.

But if the museum is outdoors, the rugby is in an enclosed stadium that can hold 32,000 for matches and 40,000 for concerts.

A couple of cemeteries, railway lines, and roads meant space was at a premium when Lorenzetti got the designers in, a decade ago, and they developed an arena with seating on three sides and a gigantic, 60-metre by 20-metre screen on the remaining end, behind one of the goals.

It is like entering a gigantic cinema: the lights are dimmed and then there is an explosion of noise and pyrotechnics, as the show begins, with ear-splitting music at every opportunity. The DJs are in place and the dancing starts in the in-goal area, even before the teams finish their warm-downs. It is no surprise, then, that Simon Zebo loves the place.

I should be coming here as an artist to perform, instead of playing rugby. It is incredible; an incredible atmosphere. Anytime we get to play here, it is always special.

"The crowd, the pyrotechnics, they are just unreal,” said Zebo.

“In the breaks in play, when you are looking around, you would be lying if you said you don’t notice the atmosphere or crowds.

“While the game is going on, you are focused. It is just another game of rugby. But during the breaks, you can be like, ‘wow, this is pretty cool’, as you would in Thomond Park for many different reasons. It is a special stadium; equally as amazing, but very, very different to Thomond,” Zebo said.

Donnacha Ryan said there is an American feel to the venue and that it took some time for him to get accustomed to it.

“It is like a massive nightclub; it’s like playing rugby in a nightclub! But it’s great; it is really good,” Ryan said..

“You do notice it in bits and pieces, when there are breaks in play. But, to be fair, rugby isn’t as massive in these parts as it is in the south. It is getting bigger and things like this are helping to encourage people to come to games, especially in the winter, because it can get quite cold here,” Ryan said.

“I know it is different, but it is an experience I would welcome anyone to come over and have a go at. It is the perfect surface. It is indoors and you are seeing players — similar to NFL — you are seeing guys hitting top speed.

"I know some people like their traditional values, but this is another way to enjoy the experience and those Munster supporters who will be seeing it for the first time will enjoy it. They’ll certainly find it different, that’s for sure,” he said.

Attack coach, Mike Prendergast, played for Bourgoin and, after coaching stints in Grenoble, Oyonnax, and Stade Francais, he’s well-accustomed to the French way of doing things.

It’s a phenomenal stadium, but it can take getting used to. One of the first games we played, this season, was in the afternoon. After the game, there was music, a bar, dancing.

"It felt like late at night, because, of course, it is all indoors, but we came out and the sun was shining on a warm evening in Paris,” Prendergast says.

Lorenzetti was keen, from the outset, to turn Racing 92 into a major rugby success story. Capturing the French title, in 2016, was one step, building this remarkable stadium was another, but two Champions Cup final defeats, in 2016 and 2018, have left unfinished business.

And for all the razzmatazz that will be on show at La Défense Arena tomorrow, taking another step towards fulfilling that European dream is what will occupy the Parisians in their indoor stadium.

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