A dressing room as multi-cultural and diverse as Racing 92’s makes it all the more difficult to keep everybody and everything on an even keel. Hence, the timing of our first run-out today at the club’s magnificent new U Arena in Nanterre is as timely as it is exciting.
The new 30,000 capacity indoor stadium — 40,000 for concerts— is a realisation of ambitious vision by our club president, Jacky Lorenzetti.
Racing won’t christen the venue with a Top 14 tie until December 23 when we entertain Toulouse, but to give the squad a sense of what to expect, a first-hand experience of the facilities, and of course, an edge that every successful club demands of its home ground, we go there this morning for the Captain’s run ahead of tomorrow’s ‘Munster reunion’ with Pau.
Timing is everything in sport as in life, and after flicking that mythical switch last weekend in a brilliant second half against Bordeaux, this has created a lovely frisson of excitement for the players.
Sport has many doors but few that kindle a bond between players like the home team dressing room when it’s shut behind you.
It is the workshop floor where characters emerge and we hope that the spectacular kit-out of the U Arena will give the players that sense of belonging to something vibrant, something to be proud of.
We have never had that at the Stade Yves du Manoir in Colombes, as soulless a rugby venue as there is. Few will be sorry to see the back of it.
Many of the Racing management and squad attended one of the recent Rolling Stones concerts at the U Arena, and it was easy to conjure moments of ecstasy when the horse-shoe shaped venue is really rocking, as it was for those concerts.
But there is a rugby dynamic to Racing’s new home that is more technical than theatrical, one that is fundamental to everything we do. For starters, the stadium is indoor, no sliding roof, and we will play on a new artificial SoftGrass (not synthetic) which has been researched and tested in the most demanding of circumstances by the Ohio-based Tarkett Group, in consultation with the technical and medical staff at Racing.
There was a considerable amount of back-and-forth between Paris and Ohio to ensure that the surface was adapted to the needs of the players, and further studies were conducted by our
medical team to establish what type of stud would ensure maximum comfort and minimum risk of injury.
But there’s another technical issue that we, as team management, must grapple with — the type of player who can perform consistently on such a fast track, and from that, the age profile of players that Racing buys in future.
In recent seasons, our recruitment policy has been geared towards bringing in experienced operators who know their way around the park, who can do their bit in bringing on the younger players. Especially in the pack.
Going forward, do we need less chiefs and more Indians? The new stadium has already triggered that conversation before a ball has been kicked there, because this is the time when budgets are nailed down for next season and targets are identified.
A lot of Top 14 clubs have their business done, as such — they may not have signed contracts with targets or agreed extensions with existing members of the squad, but things are well on their way to being lined out. Which is how details of Simon Zebo’s departure from Munster emerged when they did, for instance.
Irrespective of the money behind a club, there are only so many top-shelf talents moving in any given year, and less so the year before a World Cup.
Sometimes it’s the less heralded signings who deliver the best bang for your buck. However, you try to manage contracts to the point where they are not all running down at the same time.
A combination of age profile and contracts ending indicates Racing may be looking to bring in some backs for next season, which isn’t ideal in terms of continuity.
For instance the four All Blacks —Lualua, Carter, Rokocoko and Tuitavake — are all out of contract at the end of this season but while they may be in their mid-30’s, their conditioning and attitude is first class and an example to the younger members of the squad. They are a joy to coach.
This is my fifth campaign in the Top 14 as coach, and there is a broad consensus at the club now that we need to start moving towards stability and off the recruitment merry-go-round. We are at a point, far enough down the track, that we want to build real stability into what we do, nail down the key anchors and replace with quality where we need to.
In the context of the players we want to keep at Racing, today’s Captain’s run should be a real eye-opener into Mr Lorenzetti’s vision for the future of Racing 92.
The first feel of the pitch, how it performs underfoot, the artificial light of an indoor stadium, the ball flight, the pace of the play and, perhaps most importantly, how players’ joints respond to turning and twisting faster without the ‘give’ of a natural grass surface this time of the year.
It’s only every other week we get to play at the U Arena, so there will be a considerable degree of acclimatisation between natural and synthetic surface.
We need to get up to speed at our new home and work some built-in advantages into our psyche as soon as possible.
We got to Toulon on November 18 and then entertain Montpellier at the Yves du Manoir. With the November internationals upon us, and players in various camps around Europe, including Tongans and Fijians, it can be a very disruptive period.
Throw a new stadium into that mix and one can readily see why we are all looking forward to the U Arena with nervous excitement.