Hugues had been a companion the last time I had seen a rugby match, and the circumstances could not have been more different. Sometime over the Christmas period two years ago we sat in near Siberic conditions at Edgeley Park in Stockport to watch an awful contest between Sale and Bath. The icy wind tore through us, making our teeth chatter in symphony. Who won? Who cares. A chilling experience, in every sense of the word.
I went to visit my sister Louise, Hugues and my new-born niece Emily this weekend in Pelisanne in the Provence region of France. As a surprise a trip to the Velodrome in Marseille had been arranged to watch the semi-finals of the French rugby championship between Stade Toulouse and Montferrand.
At this point I will admit to a little scepticism – not just because of the Stockport experience, but I have always found attending rugby matches, a passionless experience. I have seen Welsh internationals at the old Arms Park, where the pre-match singing and banter was exceptional, but the subsequent hammering dished out to the home team soon sucked the atmosphere dry. I also lived in New Zealand for a year and followed Wellington for a season, yet the abiding memory is one of row upon row of empty seats, in the country where love of rugby is said to be imprinted on the soul of the population. I even saw the All Blacks, thinking that surely was where the hysteria resided, but never has so little atmosphere been provided by so many for so few.
Sceptical as I may be I would never return a gift and this was also sisterly-approved man-time between Hugues and I. We parked by the old port in Marseille and made our way to the Joliette station on the Metro. As our train departed there were a few in the yellow and blue of Montferrand and a couple in the red and black of Toulouse around us. With each passing stop, they multiplied – ten, twenty, fifty, two hundred until each carriage was awash with colour. The rivalry was obvious, with both sets taunting each other, but there was a camaraderie as well; before we reached the final stop of Ste Marguerite Dromel the train erupted with a vibrant rendition of – appropriately enough – the Marseillaise.
As we stepped into the huge concrete salad bowl of a stadium Hugues turned to me and proudly announced ‘You are in the Stade Velodrome.’ I had mentioned several times down the years that I would like to go, but my visits had never coincided with an Olympique Marseille home game. As I caught my first glimpse of the pitch I remembered what had happened there. Francescoli, Boksic, Voller and even our own Chris Waddle had played regularly; Bergkamp scored his wonder goal against Argentina at one end; Platini, Tigana, Giresse et al defeated Portugal in 1984 in one of the epic internationals of all time.
That was football though, and today was about rugby. We were in the Montferrand section amidst a sea of yellow and blue flags. Interestingly, there were I would estimate a dozen different designs at least, flags from different seasons and generations, not the product of some supplied-on-the-day merchandise by the club and the sponsors. I found that heartening. The stadium itself was unimpressive, with cramped rows of dusty blue seats, litter everywhere and perimeter fencing to cage in human beings like cattle. Unfortunately for me a rather rotund French gentleman in the adjacent seat was sat partially on me – on the one occasion he chose to break wind, I could feel the aftershock through his thigh…
This turned out to be a minor discomfort as it became clear most of the match would be spent on our feet. The Toulouse fans made the initial racket, soon countered by a thunderous din from our (I have to be Montferrand; apart from the seating, they wear the blue and yellow of Warrington) end. Two songs in particular were on constant repetition – the cry of ‘TOU-LOU-SE!’ to the 3/3 beat of some deafening drums, counteracted by “Montferrand, allez, allez, allez!’ to the tune of Yellow Submarine. Hugues told me beforehand that these were the two best supported teams in France, and it was already clear that this would be unlike any rugby game I had ever been to.
Amidst the carnival, a game ensued. It had hitherto been a blustery, overcast day but as if to signal the match may begin the wind ceased and the clouds parted, illuminating the now packed stadium in glorious Mediterranean sunshine. The game was tense, tight and, predictably, bogged down in rugby’s red-tape of scrums, lineouts, rucks and mauls. despite the early boon of the first try Montferrand looked pretty ineffective, and by half-time Toulouse had mercilessly kicked their way into a 15-7 lead.
There was a despondency in our end during the break, the general consensus being that Toulouse were too strong, the Montferrand backs bouncing off their defence like flies hitting a windshield. Hugues, who knows far more about rugby than me, saw no way back. Such a despairing situation is an opportune moment for a piece of off-the-cuff brilliance.
Early in the second-half Montferrand’s international winger, Aurelien Rougerie, picked the ball up deep in his own half and ran at Toulouse. He slipped past one tackle, then another, suddenly breaking clear of the red and black swarm. In full flight he gracefully rounded the full-back and touched the ball down despite a thumping tackle on the line. Amazing.
Often a set of supporters will, as one, detect a shift in momentum and ram the advantage home. The noise from the Montferrand fans became overwhelming and visibly, unquestionably lifted the players. A penalty sent them into the lead; a dropped goal increased the advantage. The fans in red and black were barely audible now. Toulouse were gone, and everyone in the stadium knew it.
The game ended farcically, the hooter sounding during a lull whilst a Toulouse player lay injured, then restarted several minutes later from a scrum which Montferrand kicked high into the crowd. At the whistle the Montferrand players went almost as crazy as the fans, doing a lap of honour and then perching themselves precariously on the fencing, singing in unison with their public, shaking their hands, wearing their scarves. Hugues and I stayed to soak up every last second.
We negotiated the Metro comfortably and returned to to the car. As we started to head back to Pelisanne, I asked Hugues to clarify something that had seemed a little strange – were the Montferrand players' celebrations not just a touch excessive, given that this was a semi-final?
“No,’ Hugues replied, ‘they are happy now because when they get to the final, they always lose.’
I laughed – I’m not sure Hugues understood why – and we pulled onto the motorway and left Marseilles and the Velodrome behind us.