Half nine on Thursday evening, working on a seriously substandard pint of Smithwicks in Dublin Airport and I get a text from Michael O'Leary telling me my flight is delayed. This has Nigel Wray's grubby fingerprints all over it. LNR agitators have clearly infiltrated the Italian labour movement and arranged a strike for a couple of hours in order to strand me in Premier Rugby's North London heartland. I thought that by sneaking out early and avoiding the main invasion force through Bologna under General Fourdogs I would be getting in under the radar, but this has backfired completely. I check into the Premier Inn in Stansted and try to negotiate the printing of a replacement boarding pass. The receptionist asks me if I'll be needing anything else and I casually ask for a copy of the BT Sport Contract. He looks at me as if he hasn't got a clue what I just said. They have the feckers well trained.
I endure a sleepless night dealing with the stench of Wray's dirty kaks drifting through the corridors but I don't have the balls to claim the no quibble guaranteed refund. I figure there's no point trying to keep a low profile anymore as the enemy are clearly on to me so I pull on the Connacht jersey in the hope of scaring up a few reinforcements. The airport is awash with armed personnel who are clearly PRL agents so I'm relieved to see Moremiles and Ruckin Hell in the bar at the gate. We find Christine Lagarde and the IMF in the queue and spot a few others we don't recognise further up the aisle. We treat them with caution as it's almost inevitable that the Champions Cup crowd will have double agents working on a weekend like this.
I phone for a taxi on arrival and even though the chick speaks English I make sure to use Italian as it's the only language Bruce Craig is known not to speak. The Villa Ducale is a reassuring sight. The staff there have all been vetted last year and put through the paces with drunken late night singing, lost room keys, missed checkouts and all the other counterintelligence tricks that would crack your average PRL stooge.
I hit town with the IMF delegation and we seek out some steak. We pass pockets of Connacht players on the street but they're doing a good job of fading into the background. With those ice-creams they look just like Italians. Clearly the logistics boys have done their homework.
Our sources in the Dubh Linn have picked up on some negative vibes emanating from the Highlander but a quick call to Fourdogs confirms it was just a PRL slur. Apart from the bit about the jacks. They were right about the bloody jacks.
I call three decoy taxis to the pub then hoof it up to Piazza Garibaldi to catch a real one. The ubiquitous Sligomen join us and so does Shelflife, but it's not deemed safe for his wife and kids. We arrive at the Highlander to find no-one's been served yet and everyone is scared to use the jacks, but eventually The Wolf behind the bar and his Texan sidekick get their act together and we get nicely wasted.
A serious lack of imagination in the set-list leads to a seventeen verse rendition of the Rattling Bog that frankly no-one ordered. Some passing Italian opera singer tries to redeem the situation with a local ditty but it's all too late. Miss Texas tries to move the session on to a house party, but, fearing a ruse, I approach the IMF for a bailout. The Villa Ducale is reached safely but the drinking fails to stop. The volume barely falls either despite the best efforts of Francis, the world's most tolerant night porter.
Breakfast is consumed in the traditional way, fumbling around still drunk trying to grab things from the staff as they try to clean them up. I end up with mostly meat and cake. The Tuam Ulster Mafia are trying to have a civilised family breakfast, despite all of them including the baby being on the lash as late as I was, so I keep conversation to a minimum. The young fella is apparently entered in a beauty contest later on so I figure I'll let them rehearse. Then it's straight back to bed until normal Saturday breakfast time.
On the way into the Stadio XXV Aprille I am accosted by the architects of some form of petition about drugs, the sting in the tail being that the last box asks you how much money you're prepared to pony up. If I'd known they were actually against drugs, I wouldn't have bothered.
We fill out the paperwork necessary for a few beers, put on a jumping around performance for the fans back home and watch the lads dispatch the Zebre with a surprising lack of resitance or entertainment, repairing to the clubhouse afterwards as there is a rumour that there is a proper jacks over there. There we witness a kids' game eagerly watched by a South African ex pro living vicariously through his unfortunate kid. The Munster game is allegedly on later, but having heard that Ryan Walkinshaw has only sent over half a team we figure that Keatley can handle them without us, just like Macca and Sean sorted out Castres and Ulster managed the win in France despite not getting their hands on Marmion.
So we blow the Stadio and prepare for the inevitable night on the lash. We decide to give the Highlander a miss and pile into Dubh Linn, where Fourdogs nearly tears the poor barman's head off over the volume of the music. That's why we take him along. The guy gets it done
A rumour circulates that one of the Connemara bucks was Messing With Texas the previous night, big news for a travelling party devoid of off-field scandal. The Wolf himself makes an appearance later on along with a few of his regulars, the Highlander having apparently made so much cash the previous night that it doesn't even need to bother opening anymore. The Opera Guy materialises again and is immediately pressed into action, followed closely by a Sligo rendition of Fratelli d'Italia. I think I avoid embarrassing myself vocally but having by then acquired a second wind and picked up the drinking pace with the IMF and Mme Lagarde, I can't definitively account for my actions beyond this juncture.
I do recall a taxi adventure, initiated by the Sligo delegation but hijacked by the Wolf, presumably at Nigel Wray's behest, to end up somewhere other than the original destination, where (and I am mainly relying on Swift4Prez's subsequent accounts here) the clientele are even closer to the seedy underbelly than most of us had been seeking. Even I have a vague recollection of being glad to see Miss Texas make an eventual appearance as I was familiar with her skills at ordering taxis to get me home. Back at reception, I require Francis's help to figure out the location of my room (and possibly my identity and any insight he might have into my reasons for being in Parma).
Sunday begins with a phone call from reception to inform me that checkout was a hour previously. My passport has been imprisoned in the room safe, presumably an LNR raid on the room while I slept so soundly. Luckily I can break into it as I have a kango hammer handy. All I need to do is figure out how to get it out of my brain. I stumble down to reception to see if they have anything that will do it.
Passport safely retrieved, I find Fourdogs, Twohorses and the Hicks holding out in the vanguard of the retreat mission to pick up the last of the stragglers. I attempt to piece together the lost events of the evening, but alas they have been too sensible to be of any help in this regard. It did seem quite insensitive to literally draw straws for who had to share a taxi with me to the station but their heroism in performing the thankless task of getting me to the airport should not be underestimated. We are thrown off the first train by the Fat Controller but hop on the next cattle wagon to Bologna, where the first espresso of the day prompts a brief Renaissance before its evil cousin beer plunges me back into the Dark Ages, where the Visigoths resume their conquest of my liver. Poor Carol40 has the dubious honour of sitting beside me on the flight, where my conversation is brief as by then my voice is mercifully hoarse, stemming the verbal diarrhoea. We hijack a CityLink but somehow end up mislaying Swift4Prez as it departs, apparently abandoning him to his fate, but leaving me just the final hurdle of the struggle home from the coach station.
My struggle through the working day on Monday is best left undescribed, but on getting home I have a text from Fourdogs about the Toulouse trip.
And it begins again ...
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