Rugby’s Heineken Cup 2006 semi-finalists, Leinster, seemed to have got it all right on the day, as they took on the Toulouse on their doorstep; a challenge all teams would agree was a tough one. Here’s my account of how this Munster rugby newbie got on!
What started out to be the makings of a simple holiday with some mates and copious amounts of beer, turned out to be one of the best highs of my life, certainly the finest sporting hour/weekend.
Dates of the quarter finals were announced, lads were asked, numbers were sought, “are you in, or are you out” emails bounced around the place. Final numbers managed to be 1 hard-core, 1 serious, 1 medium-core and 1 novice Leinster rugby fans, and 1 absolute Munster newbie!
I’d resigned to the fact that it’d be a weekend that I’ll be recovering from for a while; win, lose or draw. Will I be bored? should I keep my “Go wan Munster!” chants to a minimum? Will there be a lot of pints of Ken? Will I be sun burnt? Will I have to say “roish” all the time? Who knows, but I was game. Flights were booked .. there were no cheap direct flights that suited, so we went via London.. bit of a wait between the legs, but such is the price.
With an arrival well into Friday night, bags were dumped, beer was consumed. Daylight approached, it was time for a trip to some overwhelmed Boulangerie and some more beer. Eventually lose sleeping arrangements came to fruition, and as the birds sang (and we’d finished), some sleep was had.
Saturday afternoon came, as we struggled to get out of bed. “The Cure” was the only way out. Ibis Centre was also the temporary home for many Leinster fans other than ourselves. Banners, t-shirts and 1 or 2 bodhráns were handed out. While I’d expected some sponsored banners to be handed out, I hadn’t expected good quality Guinness bodhráns! With beer and some “chips” on board, we assembled and ordered the taxis. The good karma continued. A Leinster Lady approached our group and said that she’d love a flag. Referring to small cheap plasticy freebies, the guy in our group that had one handed it over without question! “My name is Earl” viewers will know that this could only result in something positive. Sure enough within minutes she returned with a big Leinster Jester’s hat to return the favour. Taxis lined up! We jumped in 2 after some “no, you first!” pleasantries. The 2 least rugby-aware fans hopped in #2. Stuck in some traffic the driver insisted we climb out the sun roof to roar on our cause. In disbelief we laughed, muttering “C’est bon, merci” in our best French. Not content, he grabbed the bodhrán himself and chanted, nay ROARED, “Allez les blues”. At which, we let the disbelief go out the sunroof, along with our good-selves; bodhráns and banners intact. My first hint at how different Toulousians would be to Parisians. My second hint would be that most people on the busy shopping district street would clap and cheer with us. Certainly nobody frowned upon us (and I was still sober enough to be able to judge!).
Getting closer to Stade Toulousain, the crowds were building up, the police were building up, and the atmosphere clearly was building up too. I mention “traffic”, and the driver winks and points as if to say “watch this” (which he probably very well did, in French!). One shortcut later, one worrying “ou est le stadium” later, one more pointing of the finger and we’re outside the stadium. Impressive stadium!
Some quick fire beers to help soften the blow of a foreign sport on a foreign soil for a foreign team, and I was well on the way to appreciating the bigger picture. Que the singing. We sang every song we collectively knew, during the 2 hours previous to the games. Sure, some Leinster fans assumed we were just too drunk to be worthy of some praise for generating some “craic”, but the Toulousians all joined in and wished us well. Not one dismissed us, not one frowned upon us, not one came up to us to wish us anything but good luck. No abuse from afar. Unbelievable. I’ve never been to such a sporting event before. It was the fuel for further singing, and beer! Photos were exchanged, broken English and French attempts were exchanged, the voices getting a bit more hoarse by the minute.
Leinster fans arriving in their droves, police encouraging more songs, team coaches arriving, and more join in the song. We’re asked by a big gang of Toulousians to help them learn the chorus of Molly Malone and, obliging as we were, within minutes we had a beautifully sporting scene. The party was on. Shane Horgan’s partner (wife?) and daughter were introduced to us. Sky Sports wanted in on the action, and there were other TV crews all interested in the passion of 5 Leinster men “giving it socks”. Knuckles wearing thin as the blood spatters on the bodhráns began to show; this was building up to be a cracker. Time to get inside and keep this passion alive!
As we find our seats and some confusion over which was row 9, we get to sit down for a few seconds. Excellent seats (a bit off-centre but good views none the less. We’re in a reasonably large pocket of Leinster fans, but most were still nervous and quiet. Disgusted at Leinster team coming off the pitch (after their warmup), to a pathetic cheer, there was only one answer for it. Apologise to the Toulousians behind us for the noise that was about to come, give them a go of the bodhrán so that they knew what to expect, offer them the hip flask of the 16 year old, and let the support begin.
Bum Bum, Bum-bum-bum, Bum-bum-bum-bum … LEINSTER!
Bum Bum, Bum-bum-bum, Bum-bum-bum-bum … LEINSTER!
“In Dublin’s fair city…” and the Leinster fans rose. The Toulousians were silenced, and we were well on the way to an admirable display of support for the team that were to return the favour in the best possible way. Some Toulousians tempted to start their own sing song were quickly silenced by the majority of their fellow men behind us. This was our turn to sing, and they were going to let us. Not our arrogant thinking, but their sporting generosity! “Wow” I say to the Toulousian behind me, “Merci” and we exchanged names. A little struggle with the Irishness of mine, I offered to settle on “Je m’appelle C” for short. He wouldn’t have it, and he spent the last verse of Molly Malone to make sure he got it right.
Then came one of the most impressive displays I’ve ever seen. Waiting for us to finish our rendition, out came the Toulousian big drums. To the rhythm of We Will Rock you… Tou-lou-se, Tou-lou-se. Upwards on 30,000 Toulousians all around us, stamping, clapping and chanting it in perfect time. Wow! All we could do, in awe, was join in.
Teams on the field; cheers all round. What happened next will make its own sporting history, and is better left for the serious rugby reporters to describe. Matching 3 points for 3 points, we were in the game. 9 rows back from the heart of the action, we got the casual wave / acknowledgement of our support from Les Blues as they notched up the points. I’m waiting on a replay for some of the game, but the big screen did help to actually believe it was happening.
Around 25 minutes in (have yet to see the match recording), and we in good shape, but it was still far from over. Time for beer, before the 1/2 time rush. “Cinq, s’il vous plait”. He arrives with 6 in for my cardboard tray. 20 police in the tunnel, some well armed, and 1 Alsatian. I better not smile, or make any joke like “Fancy a beer, lads?”. “Monsieur, arete s’il vous plait” (or something close to it). Dammit, I can’t bring beer in to the stadium. “You, have 6 beers?” in reasonable English. “Yes, there are 6 of us sitting together just there”, as I nod in our seats general direction, exaggerating the number to include my free beer which was for Phillipe behind me, though he didn’t know it yet. “No, no, no” was the response, as I pondered how fast I’d be able to drink all 6, “there are 20 of us and a thirsty dog”!!! Laughter all round! I double checked the trousers to make sure all was good, offer them a quarter beer each (they politely refused!), and away I go. Climb over the railing, into my seat, only I didn’t quite make it. 6 beers for the hot concrete ground. Some 4 minutes, 6 beers for 5 euro (thank you Toulousian bar man), an apology to Philippe for the spilt beer later, a “this [sic] ones” for us comment from the same policeman and we were back on track with 6 fresh beers.
Next up, half time. More sing songs, more cameras. The sun had really come out now. The game was on. Leinster were there in force. Second half, and the Toulousians had more reason to cheer. That they did, in style. Within one point, the fast soft rhythms on our bodhráns were testimony to the nervousness creeping in. We’re still in the game. Our support is needed now more than ever. Jowett delivers some 50 something minutes in. It seemed like we’d take over the stadium, such was the eruption! Milliseconds later (well it felt like that!), Hickie was to shine. Everything was right, and some eager moments before the touch judge confirmed. One bodhrán is burst, there’s more blood than (synthetic!) goat skin on mine. The hip flasks are empty. Philippe, clearly not happy, has nothing but praise for us. There was more to come. Amongst another couple of fine tries, there’s wild speculation amongst us all as to what O’Driscoll is coming our way for. He comes off after some confusion/delay (I’ve yet to see what that was about).
As Toulouse come back at the end of the game, we applaud, almost as loudly as for our own. We’re in admiration for the support they’ve shown us, and comfortable with the score see no reason not to applaud their efforts, but more their support. A few reds are leaving, but only a couple of dozen. The whistle is blown, the margin is wide enough at 6 points. Mayhem ensues. Voices are lost, sunglasses are gone. Any drop of beer that was left over has well evaporated. Philippe taps me as I climb out over the railing to get along pitchside. I’m embarassed by my ignorance. A sturdy handshake and a “well done”. His young son (who was offered some of the hip flask earlier) looks longingly at my “Allez les blues” banners (I’d 2, in case people behind me couldn’t appreciate my support!). “Pour vous” as I hand him one. What a smile. Delighted! I was too. Then I spotted another boy beside him (2 fathers, and 2 boys), so he had to get the second one. Less delighted at first, I was more than happy to hand it over.
We went pitch side. The blues did a brief wave about and clap and went inside. I’ve never shook so many hands in my life, as the Toulousians came up to congratulate us. As their supporters band packed up, we went to the corner to salute their support for both sides. They’d learnt the new rhythm for our Leinster chant! You won’t see that in Thurles at a Munster hurling final!!
We hung around by the dressing rooms for the team to come out, but they only came in drips, and it was a bit of an anti climax. The pressure was on to get to the Munster game, or the 2nd half of it, at this stage. We climb back up the bridge, to make a plan. My feet hurt, I can feel the sunburn, I’m starvin’, but it’s all good. We’re wrecked. We’d been performing for hours now. So we head off the beaten track to find somewhere with a TV. We peak in a quiet old-fashioned cafe bar, spot the telly .. “Pardon, avez-vous Sports+?”. Sure, it wasn’t great French, but the owner understood and was more than happy to oblige. We’re off the beaten track so we’re alone now, and we’ve got a relaxing second half to look forward to. A few rounds of beers go by, and then comes the free one. The bodhráns are signed by people in the bar and people passing. We give a quick Molly Malone, on request, but we’re wrecked. Taxis are called. De Danú is the place to be, apparently. A driver in front our taxi stops in the middle of the road. The door opens and he falls out of the drivers seat, completely twisted. Judging by the hand signals, he wanted the taxi driver to drive it around the corner. Having none of it we reverse the hell out of there! De Danú is packed.
A good number of Toulousians join in on the craic and celebrations. Many rounds are bought and drank. My turn. In my best French accent .. “cinq biere grande s’il vous plait”, to which a healthy Irish accent replies “pints of what, like?”. Demonstrations of the bodhrán are given to many a French lad and lassie, along with Aussies, Brits and Scots. All came well attached with the disclaimer that this wasn’t the proper way. We’d get the beat going. My co-bodhránist gets a bit carried away and “swings broad”. He takes out 5 glasses, at the very least. ‘Twas perfect timing. We’d our own set of symbols. Second best of all, I could get a glimpse of the bar girls laughing their heads off. The crowd were clapping in beat. Best of all is that he doesn’t miss so much as a half-beat. It was planned, I’m sure. The crowd were anyway, and that was good enough for us. The craic goes on. There’s sing songs inside and out, but we’re failing, and failing fast. It’s been a long day. We’ve certainly given it our best shot. The craic and atmosphere was just unreal. Were we not living it, we’d well believe it was something to do with April Fool’s day.
Then the most disappointing part of the weekend was realised, when I’d noticed my bodhrán was gone. Some one had stolen it from under our bags. Having been on such a high, it was a huge blow. I know it was free, but it had a half pint of my blood on it, and had brought such craic to many people all day, as I’d given it my all, all day. An over-reaction maybe, but that’s how I felt, and still feel. I’d have given my jersey away before that, had someone asked and looked genuine. It wasn’t borrowed, because someone had to go through lots of bags to get there, and they’d have seen the signatures and blood, and know it meant something to someone. My email address is on the back of it. So maybe in some mad twist of karma I’ll get some email in years to come. Perhaps not!
Still, it didn’t drown out the craic we’d had, and the craic we’d generated. I’d met 5 or 6 people who had recognised me/us as being the singers outside the stadium. One French girl asked “have you money from Ireland for singing and music?”. After some exchange of what only some could call English/French, we’d reduced the sentence to “had we been sponsored”. Others bought us all a beer! We decided we should get back to the hotel so that we could get seats and relax a bit and have a quiet pint before an early night. The latter part of the plan, of course, didn’t quite materialise as we were greeted with a cheer back in the hotel. We’d met most of them earlier in the day. The only food all day was staring at us in the form of an ice-bucket full of crisps. Nobody seemed hungrier than I, so imagine my delight when the bar girl asked if we “would like more chips”. By the end of the second bucket of crisps, I was now the “Munster Monster Munch”. After many hours, many stories, and many beers.. the realisation that we’d only a couple of hours kip before a long day of travel back kicked in. I’d managed to lose (no pun intended, I’d worn that out enough at the weekend) our room key in between the buckets of crisps.
After a significant effort to get out of bed, we set off on a long trip home. We’d a few hours wait in London Gatwick on the way home. It was all we could get that had enough time for delays out of Toulouse, of which we’d assumed there would be many. On the contrary, all our flights were fine, and we’d no problems with any Ryanair surcharge on bodhráns, or mid-air stomach revenges for the abuse they’d received over the weekend.
The dumping of the bag marked the end of the best sporting event I’ve been part of, and certainly a fondness of the Toulousains (rugby fans and non-rugby fans alike). I had a ball! I was right, I had nothing (other than a pair of sunglasses) to lose, in Toulouse!
To you non-Irish, Munster and Leinster (along with Connacht and Ulster) are provinces within Ireland. I’m from County Clare, in Munster, but am living in Dublin, in Leinster, for 11 years. To Munster fans, I’m a traitor, and to Leinster fans, I’m a blow in!!! A bodhrán is an percussion instrument used in traditional Irish music. Monster Munch are a cheap packet of tasty/unhealthy snacks, that many of us grew up on.