RONAN O'GARA: Racing’s awesome U Arena could be painful for Munster

Racing 92 players during a training session at the U Arena.

Christchurch feels very safe and secure. And the Ireland in me had forgotten how much you savour those things. The contrast from Paris is huge. There is no anger in this world. On the RER in Paris, every nationality in the world is around you.

Here the pace is different, and the surprises walk up and shake your hand. After the hustle and bustle of Paris for four and a half years, it will take a bit of readjusting to.

The two constants though are family and work. The Crusaders management team had a few getting-to-know-you pizzas at the weekend.

I walked in and the Irish connection walked over to me — Neil Tucker, who was a physio at Munster half a dozen years ago is now fulfilling the same role with the Crusaders. When you play, fellas leave and disappear off your radar.

I knew he’d come back to New Zealand, but it was a welcome ‘so this is where you finished up…’ We have the guts of 40 players training this week. One of the first to impress introduced himself.

Ollie Jager from Naas, a Blackrock College kid who played eight in the Leinster Academy and has transferred to prop. In training, he looks a prospect. But there are still 17 All Blacks missing, between long-term injuries and fellas yet to be fed back into the programme.

Next Monday will be an early start. Like 3.45am to watch Racing 92 and Munster at the U Arena.

It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t experienced the inside of Racing’s new stadium to make a accurate judgment but believe me, they will be blown away when they walk in there Sunday.

It’s not a retractable roof, so the sense of class and warmth will never be weather-dependent. It’s vast, and the finishings aren’t cheap, tacky, or cold.

There is a vibe of quality off it and you are left to think to yourself: ‘And they play rugby in here?’ We trained on in several times before Christmas.

As Joe Rokocoko said to me, the synthetic surface is forgiving but you’d want to have the adrenaline juices flowing to be throwing yourself down on it. They won’t be doing much tackling in the Captain’s Run.

It’s sore. Adrenaline is a wonderful ingredient once you get over 30. But you only need to be calling on it once a week if you are looking at the long game — it’s alright for fellas under 25 to be bouncing off the ground.

I think Racing will win but that could depend on whether it’s Pat Lambie, Dan Carter, or Remi Tales — who has been in a rich vein of form — at 10.

The venue will be a big factor, the difference even, just as it was when the sides met at Thomond Park. It was a one score game then, and that may be the difference again.

Plus, Donnacha Ryan’s influence is huge. The inaccurate perception of the Nenagh man is possibly greater than any other player I’ve been involved with.

He’s deep, brilliantly deep on rugby sometimes. I know him 20 years and he has a serious rugby intellect when you spend time with him.

For a lot of forwards, it’s all about grunt and boshing, but this one has been tutored by O’Connell and Schmidt and there’s a great brain there to process that feed of advice.

He is a very basic communicator about the game, so when he speaks, it’s easy to understand where he is taking you. And that’s invaluable for a coach, a back, like me: to get that knowledge of what the front five think.

A centre thinks completely differently to a prop. For your team to function properly, I need to know the key to servicing my front five, to get the best out of them.

And you can talk that through with Donnacha Ryan. This is the lineout for this situation? This is the exact position we should be in.

Are we better to have Player A here? Tell me more about front five combinations. Forwards like direction. They are not robotic, but they want a simple plan to follow. Simplify and clarify. Why complicate it if you get a better result by keeping it simple?

Ryan’s performances have been really good since he came back from the injury lay-off. But you knew from talking to him for 20 minutes that this guy was different gravy to anything else Racing had in this area.

It’s great to have foot-soldiers but sometimes you need a general everyone can be secure in and know how he is going to play.

Donnacha actually loves to talk, but not for ráiméis. He’s intelligent and hardy, a diamond combination. He can roll up the sleeves, but he adds big value to the environment because of the preparation work he does — which is why I admired him from a coaching perspective.

You just can’t be making it up as you go along. He has it meticulously planned from the Monday before. He is going to cause Munster issues on Sunday if allowed. Racing are now only a point off the summit of the Top 14.

Though they put 58 points on Clermont last weekend, the most significant improvements have been defensively. We changed the system last summer and it looks to be paying dividends.

That is important too for someone like Simon Zebo, who will be a big addition to Racing. But to get the best out of him, offensively and defensively, he needs to fall into strong structures next summer.

Casey Laulala has taken my role there on the coaching staff and for Zebo arriving at the club, he is as good as anyone who help Simon acclimatise. I kept Zeebs informed of the Crusaders proposal, and of course, I was a little bit of a positive in him signing.

But the main factor was his family. He has only a limited window to shape his and their future. He was coming to the Top 14 whether I was here or not.

Round 5 of the Champions Cup invariably means more coaches watching results other than their own. People are starting to work out quarter-final permutations.

In Leinster’s Pool 3, eyes will be on Sandy Park to see how Montpellier get on. If the French can get a win, it’s a significant move in the context of the quarter-finals.

In the last eight, they are going to be a difficult proposition home or away. They have the players to raise it for big one-off performances. And their final pool game next week is at home to Leinster, who have plenty of incentive to end their hosts’ interest.

There’s a similar dynamic at play in Pool 2 where the Ospreys hosts champions Saracens. Mark McCall’s side have already lost twice, had a serious nosedive in form but put things to right it would seem last Sunday, winning away to Wasps and scoring 38 points.

However, last chance saloon brings its own pressure, and were they to bow out surprisingly, it opens up the competition for everyone — from Leinster to Munster to Montpellier. Sarries could still finish with 21 points and have Northampton at home in the final round.


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