Saturday, 2 November 2013

Researching Rugby in France - a travelogue


I'm in Toulon. Home of the European Rugby Champions. Rugby Union champions. There's a good reason I'm here.

After Toulon tomorrow, I'm heading to Avignon on Friday to watch New Zealand v France in the Rugby League World Cup. I'm here to blog about it. I am really looking forward to sitting in the Parc de Sports, Avignon, with my wife and daughter (9) and watching the New Zealand Haka, followed by another fantastic Rugby League tie. And I have a feeling France - New Zealand is going to be a good one.

But my trip here has been funded by my desire to see the home of the European Champions of Rugby Union, RC Toulon and the book I am doing set here. I'm writing a trilogy. About a school rugby team. A Rugby Union team. The second book is set in Toulon. In the Stade Mayol, RC Toulon's home ground. Tomorrow I get to watch the team train, to see the likes of Andrew Sheridan and Jonny Wilkinson preparing for their latest match in the French Championship.

I can't wait. I am lucky. I know I am lucky.

My Rugby Union book is about a team that has won the UK school's title and is now playing a Russian and French team in a fictional European championship. Tomorrow morning will be invaluable research. And I am very grateful to Andrew Sheridan, R C Toulon player, who has made it possible.

I have done three books about rugby league for children. But finding a publisher interested is not easy. Rugby Union is easier. But still a struggle. I'm lucky Barrington Stoke Publishing were up for it. It took me years to get a publisher interested in any kind of rugby book and it is a credit to Barrington Stoke that they went for it. (The book is called Scrum! by the way.)
I'll blog about my trip to Toulon on Thursday. Then my trip to Avignon on Friday.
Watch this space.


Tomorrow I am going to watch the Rugby League World Cup game between France and New Zealand. In France. It should be a good game, as both sides won their opening games. New Zealand will be favourites, but if... if France can use their home advantage to their benefit perhaps they have a chance?

To be honest, I don't know enough about international rugby league to make that call, but one think I have worked out is that the winner of the France-New Zealand game will play England in the semi-finals, all being well. So that should make it interesting too.

I am also in the south of France to research a children's book about rugby union. So today, I watched RC Toulon (European Champions) training at their Stade Mayol down by the docks. I was very lucky that Andrew Sheridan showed me round. he was extremely helpful, even though he'd moments before had an injection in his neck.

I watched the RC Toulon team warm up, train and then I looked around the stadium, which will be the setting for the second book in my rugby union series. Long after all the other players had gone and when I had found out all I wanted to, there appeared to be only one other person in the stadium.
A man practicing his kicking.

Jonny Wilkinson.

I kind of knew he was going to be doing that. I read his fantastic autobiography last month. Never have I read a sportspersons' book that was so honest and interesting. Highly recommended. He speaks very highly of rugby league, by the way.

Then I got on a boat. Out across the water, past several large grey ships. The French Navy resides in Toulon. I got very close to an aircraft carrier. Not a bad day's work.
Then I looked round the town. I saw a few possible settings for the book: a funicular up a mountainside, the cafes in the centre of town and a large shopping centre. I like looking for settings. It's a nice way of getting to know a place.


I was lucky to get to the France-New Zealand game tonight. There was trouble on the trains.
We left Toulon at ten-thirty, aiming to get to Avignon for lunch, have a look round then make it to the stadium in good time. But the TGV we were travelling on hit someone and the train was forced to sit ten miles outside Avignon for four hours.

Then - after those four hours - an announcement over the speakers: the train was travelling back sixty miles to Marseille where we would all have to get another train, as the first train was damaged and unable to go on. Everyone in our carriage was very relaxed about it. No-one complained as several policemen and women and firemen searched the edge of the railway track, then brought a stretcher alongside the train.

When we arrived at Avignon we were really impressed. It is a lovely walled town with some very old buildings. (I wish I knew how to date buildings with words like Baroque, etc. but I don't.) It reminded me of Avila in Spain.

There were one or two Kiwis on our bus into town. They were quiet, busy applying face-paint. Unlike the band of French supporters singing the Marseilles just inside the city walls, waving a Tricolour before them, their voices echoing up the main street of the city as we went to find out hotel.

The French singing put me in the mood. We were about to hear the French national anthem sung by twenty thousand passionate France supporters, then see the New Zealand Haka. Then eighty minutes of pulsating rugby league. I was really up for it.

After we'd found our hotel in Avignon, we rushed to the bus station to get to the Parc des Sports a few miles out of the walled town centre.

My family wanted to get some food in town, so I told them we'd be able to get food at the stadium. They agreed and we jumped on the bus. There was a chance we'd miss the start if we stopped to eat.
I like 'special' buses. Everyone is going to the same place for the same thing. I'm used to football specials in Leeds. The frenzied foot-stomping P2s from near the railway station drawn to the floodlights of Elland Road. Often slightly out-of-the pub.

The Avignon Rugby Special was travelling from the railways station to the floodlights' glow, but it was not frenzied. There were very few rugby tops. None, actually. Most people were dressed in nice coats and fashionable scarves. Men and women. Quiet conversations as the bus made it's way. The Tricolour-waving fans were long gone.

There was one obvious drinker on the bus. He was working his way through the bus, shouting. Slightly unnerving when you have a child with you, but it worked out okay. As he got off - not at the stadium - he wished everyone 'Good rugby!' then stumbled off.
As the bus approached the stadium I asked my daughter (who is 9) what she was looking forward to about the game.

'The Haka,' she said without hesitation. Then added, 'And a burger.' She was still hungry.
We rushed off the bus to get our tickets. Towards the stadium. Towards the Haka and towards the noise of the French fans already echoing around the streets.


When we reached the Parc de Sports, Avignon, the atmosphere was building nicely. Streams of men, women and children making their way to the stadium in the warm dark streets of France. Waves of noise coming from inside, as the teams warmed up and the pre-match entertainment came to an end.

The entrance gate was in chaos. Hundreds of people pushing to get in, minutes before kick off. No turnstiles. We must have looked confused or anxious to the man on the gate. He looked harassed himself. But, when he saw we were with a child, he stopped the flow of fans and led us through the main stand to our seats. My daughter said 'Merci.'

We caught the end of the brass band and saw the two country's flags being unfurled on the pitch just as we reached our seats. The roar that went up when the giant Tricolour was laid out on the pitch was almost shocking. Really loud. Really passionate.
Patriotism is alive and well - and untainted - in France.

Then the players came out. To a louder road. Not the kind of noise I've heard at a football or rugby match in England in years. An explosion of cheers, foot-stamping and applause. Roars.

In the three other stands thousands of fans held up pieces of card in red and white and blue. Giant Tricolours appearing under the massive sky, lit by the four floodlights. And the sky was massive. Without cover over all but the backs of the two main stands, the sky was huge and black, bringing your eyes back to the explosion of colour and light in the bowl of the Parc de Sports.

With the crowd fully pumped, the man on the PA was chanting Allez les Bleus over and over, as the French joined in. Fever pitch. Then the anthems.

The New Zealand anthem was respected perfectly. The French sang along to so passionately to their anthem that the stadium vibrated. Like a plane taking off, my wife said. I love the Marseilles. It gets me every time. Sung by twenty thousand plus it was something else. I recorded it on my phone. What an anthem!

And then something changed in the atmosphere. The French team lined up on the halfway line. They were ready. For the Haka.

Next, the New Zealand players came out of their huddle and walked towards the French team.
A few boos from the crowd. The TV cameras picked up a few anxious expressions on the faces of the French players. A sudden hush. Like that feeling you get in a pub where a fight is about to kick off. Multiplied by 20,000.

The Haka. The war dance. The faces of the Kiwi players twisted.

And the French boos died down. Made silent.

And you could hear every word of the Haka. The raging passionate stadium was intimidated. No question about that.

The New Zealand team were ready.


The first I saw of Albert was him standing on a seat on his tiptoes to take a photograph of the French rugby league team as they ran out for their World Cup tie against New Zealand. He was shouting Allez! Allez! Allez! over and over.

Albert was wearing black jacket, white shirt and black tie. He had a long moustache, twirled at the end. Very smart. He was chain smoking pungent French cigarettes. And he was falling backwards, off his chair, to a probable broken arm or leg.

Albert was lucky that there was a man in a St Helens shirt directly behind him. The St Helens fan caught him and set him upright again. Then Albert came to sit next to me.
But this was a problem. Because of Albert's cigarette.

My daughter was right next to me. She immediately wanted to move. An English nine-year-old not used to strong smoke wafting in her face, very used to strong anti-smoking messages.

I said, 'S'il vous plait. Non fumer. Les enfants.' It was worth a try. He was within his rights to tell me to get stuffed, seeing as we were in his country. But he was very kind. Albert nodded and ripped the burning end off his cigarette, then stamped it out. Just as the game kicked off.

'You are from Manchester, yes?' he asked me.

I shook my head. Not a good start to a conversation with a lad from Leeds. But the man had done me huge a favour, so I took it well. With a smile.

'Leeds,' I said. The St Helens fan turned round and grinned at me. He understood the nuance.

'Ahh,' Albert said, 'Rhinos. We are for Catalan Dragons. And, in England, Salford.'

We talked about Superleague. For a bit. But he was distracted. By the game. New Zealand were already pressing for a try. Three minutes gone.

'Allez1 Allez! Allez!' Albert shouted. Then the crowd exploded into Allez les bleus. Over and over. I joined in, still influenced by the Marseillaise. He was pleased.

'Who you are for? France or New Zealand?' he asked.

'France,' I replied, honestly.

'Merde!' he shouted. But not because he doubted me. New Zealand had scored. After four minutes. My daughter nudged me in the ribs. There's nothing like hearing someone swear when you're with your parents. Especially if it is in a foreign language.

The game did not go well for Albert. 18-0 down at half time.48-0 by the end. But he was always positive. Always ready to shout Allez! Allez! Allez! when France got into the New Zealand half.