Thursday 12 December 2019

Ian Keatley: We won't alter plans for 'U' turn

The U Arena where Munster face Racing 92 this weekend. Photo: Getty Images
The U Arena where Munster face Racing 92 this weekend. Photo: Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

This November will mark 10 years since the redeveloped Thomond Park was officially opened by the All Blacks.

On Sunday, Munster's players and fans will learn that 10 years is a long time in the world of stadium design as they step into the U Arena - Racing 92's €360m new home in the business district of La Défense in Paris.

Sunday's pivotal Pool 4 clash will be the first European game at the new home of the Parisian club who finally have a venue to match their grand ambitions and big salaries.

For the first years of the Jacky Lorenzetti era, the club's surrounds never matched up to their wage bill or ambitions. The Stade Yves du Manoir was a rickety old place, hard to get to and featuring a heavy pitch that slowed things down to a funereal pace at times.

Throughout the owner's time in charge, his vision has been to move the club to an arena fitting of their status as the game's market leaders and he has delivered a breath-taking modern stadium that does just that.

Since they moved in, Racing have been enjoying themselves with last weekend's 58-6 win over a weakened Clermont Auvergne in front of a big crowd the latest step along the road to settling in.

Munster are the first overseas visitors to the new stadium. An experienced bunch, they are not getting too carried away by the prospects of playing somewhere different, but the closed roof and 4G pitch is a combination that will directly affect the game.

Over the past few months, the province have been playing Irish winter rugby on soft pitches and with poor handling conditions. The synthetic surface is nothing new, they've played Cardiff Blues, Glasgow Warriors and Saracens on their versions but the combination of the dry ball, hot arena and closed roof means they'll be plummeted into summer conditions.

Munster will train on the 4G pitch at the University of Limerick today, but they won't be changing their game too much based on the environment.

"To be honest, I haven't even thought about that," Ian Keatley said.


"I think we are still on the focus of trying to analyse the opposition first and I haven't even thought about playing indoors in a warmer climate, so I think the fact we haven't thought or talked about it that much, I don't think it will be at the forefront of our mind process, but it will make a small difference.

"There is loads of different aspects we are going to be focused on, the referee, the crowd, they are big things we need to work on as well.

"A lot of people were saying it is meant to be very hot in there during their first two games there, saying they were freezing outside and when they came in it felt like a furnace, so we have to do that and play rugby in it.

"It's so exciting to play in a new venue. Us as players, like, people have talked about us going up to the Aviva and not winning there much, but as players we love going up to the Aviva and playing there. You want to play in the best stadiums as a player, so this is going to be another arena that we are going to enjoy playing in."

The two teams met in a close encounter in October, a game that stayed a 0-0 stalemate for almost an hour before Conor Murray charged down Maxime Machenaud's box-kick and blew the game open.

Such a long, scoreless period seems impossible to imagine in the conditions at the U Arena but Munster are still expecting a tight, cagey affair.

"The conditions weren't great that night granted, but I think we'd be happy enough if it was a close game and we can put ourselves within a shout," Peter O'Mahony said. "In Europe, anything can happen. We try and play the best rugby we can in Europe because you have to when you come up against teams like that.

"So we've got to focus on ourselves this week and try and train as well as we can the two or three times we get out there, and try and put ourselves in the best position."

Munster have plenty of top-of-the-ground players in their backline, so if they can get their heads around playing summer rugby in the depths of winter then there are opportunities for them in Paris.

Their ability to adapt to their surrounds will be crucial but no matter what it certainly should make for a more free-scoring affair than the clash in Thomond Park.


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