There are several tower blocks close to Stade Yves-du-Manoir in north-west Paris, one of which has a perfect view from behind the goalposts at one end. Fifteen storeys high, four apartments with balconies face out on each side.
So, with two of the most expensive rugby sides ever assembled, the occupants of at least 60 flats had the best view on Sunday afternoon of what was about to unfold in the dilapidated old stadium.
Racing 92 versus Toulon, the stars of world rugby about to do battle, the club which has dominated Europe for three years being challenged by the Parisian side which wants to succeed them.
The occupants of the high-rise had been busy. Nearly all of the balconies had lines of washing but other than one guy, leaning out a window in a string vest smoking a cigarette, there wasn’t another soul availing of their superb view to watch the match.
Down at ground level, most of the ‘record’ 15,340 crowd would have given anything for such a view. Some of them were standing on the sandy embankment behind of the goals, others were crammed into the temporary stand on one side of the ground, the rest of us in the old concrete and iron stand on the primary side of the ground. Behind the other goal were marquees and behind that old terracing which might have been in use when this venue staged the 1924 Olympics or the 1938 World Cup final between Italy and Hungary.
It’s more like an old soccer ground than anything else. It’s being replaced, of course, by the magnificent Arena 92 which is being built in nearby Nanterre at a cost of €320m. Yes, €320m. That’s eight times what it cost to redevelop Thomond Park.
This venue, which will be completely enclosed, was meant to open in 2014 but was mired in delays. It was expected to open next February but the Italian company doing the roof has gone bust and now Racing 92 and all their expensive stars — Dan Carter is believed to be the first €1m a season player in the world — will not move out of Stade Yves-du-Manoir until close to Christmas 2017.
They don’t seem unduly bothered by their humble surroundings but it is just another example of the contradictions in French rugby.
But it is those contradictions, on and off the field, which make France such an attractive place for the likes of Ronan O’Gara, Bernard Jackman, and Mike Prendergast to cut their teeth as coaches, not to mention the handful of young players who have gone there.
When they talk about experiencing the different lifestyle they are not just talking about wine and cheese, but horizons broadened by the French approach to rugby, sport, and life in general.
On Sunday, the narrow streets approaching Stade Yves-du-Manoir were lined with soldiers and heavily-armed police. Everyone going into the ground was body-searched. After all that has gone on in Paris, a fixture with a few dozen of the world’s best players carried a risk.
Over 600km away what has happened in Paris is being felt in Grenoble. Jackman and Prendergast have Grenoble flying, coming with a late surge for a Top 14 play-off spot and now through to their first European semi-final after edging out Connacht in last weekend’s thriller. And yet, crowds are down this season.
“We averaged over 16,000 last season,” said team manager Andrew Farley, the former Connacht captain. “But what has happened in Paris has seen a drop in attendances around the country. It impacts on everyone.” They got a crowd of 14,077 into Stade de Alpes last Saturday night, the 20,000 capacity stadium they availed of when the local soccer team got into financial difficulty.
Jackman, someone with real experience of running a business in private life — unusual as a player and coach in the pro game — didn’t just dwell on the rugby benefits of advancing to the last four in the Challenge Cup.
“It’s a massive win for us as we’re down on crowds. All of France is down, but financially we’re not where we need to be in terms of revenue. In France, you have to balance the books so there was a bit of pressure on us to win. We don’t have a benefactor, so the only thing that can solve our revenue problems are results and a cup run.
“It’s like Connacht. If Connacht are getting results the Sportsground can be sold out. You can do all the mad things you want but what really puts bums on seats is a team that fans respect and love.”
It might, though, take a bit more to interest the neighbours up near Stade Yves-du-Manoir in Paris.
French ref Poite will officiate the al-Premiership meeting of Saracens and Wasps in Madejski Stadium on Saturday, April 23. Owens will oversee the clash of Leicester and Racing 92 in the City Ground, Nottingham the following day.
Premier League Manager of the season
Premier League Player of the season
Premier League Flops of the Season
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved