One highlight of supporting a side that plays European rugby is the chance to visit other rugby towns and regions where you’ve always wanted to go. The Heineken Cup offers some exotic destinations, including Treviso, Paris, Toulouse and, uh, Glasgow, but this season’s pick for me was a trip away to South-East France to Heineken Cup newcomers, Toulon. The residence of the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Carl Hayman, George Smith and Felipe Contepomi, the town is revelling in it’s resurgence as a rugby force, and I set off looking ahead to what I predicted to be a very enjoyable, but heavy, weekend.
Early starts to the airport actually scare the hell out of me. This comes after I nearly missed a flight to Delhi a couple of years ago, which consisted of sleeping through an alarm followed by a mad rush to the airport and getting to my check-in desk five minutes before it closed. A harsh lesson was learned, and so this time I was up well in advance at 4:30, bags packed and awake enough to see England lose a couple of wickets in the Cricket. That really should have been taken as an omen.
After a smooth flight and quick drive from Nice airport, we arrived at the All Seasons hotel in Toulon, which would soon be filled with Irish supporters. Toulon’s port is one its highlights, with the splendour of the yachts matching the quality of their squad. A relaxed afternoon was followed by how all evenings should be spent in the south of France, with plenty of quality food at a restaurant called Le Pointilliste, and then many drinks, ending up in the hotel bar. Packed with travelling fans offering their thoughts ahead of the next day’s game, with the Stade Mayol lying no further than 200 metres away, people arrived late into the night as travel plans were already starting to be affected. Following several beers and confident predictions, the game couldn’t come soon enough.
Bathed in sunshine with clear blue skies, Toulon was a vision. It’s not hard in those conditions to wonder why the town has attracted so many big names over the years. One of our group was eagle-eyed enough to spot Toulon’s Wilkinson and ex-England teammate and London Irish coach Mike Catt enjoying the conditions walking down by the water before they went back to their adopted sides. Another one was the target for some bird excrement, which ultimately didn’t prove to be lucky.
Following an excellent lunch, we made our way to the stadium in good spirits ahead of a 4:30 kick off French time. The Stade Mayol is a great venue which offered an excellent view point from our position at the top of the Lafontan stand. Having said that, the seating was pretty remarkable. Intimate would be the appropriate word to use, as supporters literally clambered over one another to get into the seats! As for the game itself, Toulon’s physicality the week before had given them the edge, and it was the same in the first half as they raced away to a 17-0 lead. It was the worst first-half performance from the Exiles that I have seen for years.
To make matters worse, on 49 minutes Sailosi Tagicakibau was sent off for a second professional foul, leaving myself and those around me in shock. For some reason, a bizarre next ten minutes followed. A combination of Toulon switching off and Irish bravery saw the visiting side bring the game back to 17-17. But Toulon then broke away, scoring three tries as Irish caved in, losing in the end by 38-17. The Toulon crowd were very gracious in victory, wishing all the supporters the best of luck for the rest of the season.
Fortunately, losing away from home when abroad is not a complete disaster. Whilst defeat is never easy to take, being in a place like Toulon does take the edge off. A couple of beers, a sighting of Dewi Morris in a pizza restaurant and then the enormous frame of Carl Hayman in hotel lobby, and the defeat was all but forgotten. Irish though are currently in their worst run since 2002. They will be praying Santa brings them a victory this Christmas.
Sunday & Monday:
Watching on the television and listening on the radio, the prospects of getting home seemed pretty bleak. Our scheduled flight was duly cancelled, so we left Toulon behind and headed to Nice airport to see when we could fly back. Booked onto the same flight the next day, we checked in to a hotel on the beach and explored one of the Cote D’Azur’s most famous towns. There are worse places to be stuck abroad than Nice covered in Christmas lights.
Waking up to another cancellation the next morning, the thought of being stuck in Nice for Christmas was starting to become a serious one. Our group split into those going to the airport to re-book and the rest of us passing down the Promenade de Anglais, where there were people sunbathing and swimming in the sea it was so hot. With beers half sunk in a bar around midday, a call came for us to rush to the airport to get on standby for a long haul flight that had been diverted from Shanghai and was on its way to London.
This proved to be a false dawn as despite getting boarding passes and going through security, we waited four hours to board the plane. After another three then sat on the plane before take off, and having watched the excellent Toy Story 3, we finally departed and arrived back at Heathrow about 10pm, ten hours after arriving at the airport. A long journey, but we were lucky to be home.
Given Irish’s poor form in this year’s tournament, the trip to Munster looks unlikely next in Round 6, but Toulon was a great weekend away. Great food, wine, people and setting, but no result. Not this time round anyway. I look forward to the next one.