A pre-dawn start on the Citylink. Those quiet hours before the mayhem begins and you have time to think. Way too much time. The Battle For The Soul Of European Rugby appears to have fought itself to a standstill. The English have taken their ball and gone home. It's a victory of sorts. I've spent so much time thinking about rugby's future, or lack of it, that it's present has trundled on without me. Now with international diplomacy on the back burner, I'm faced with a new problem: The Bloody Fear. Surrender against Glasgow, capitulation against Scarlets, annihilation on the Murrayfield turf, these are not among the items of baggage you want to check in to a flight to La Ville Rose. The prospect of facing a team whose jersey has more stars than my hotel fills me with a dread so immense that it's like an extra uninvited Clan member skulking in the shadows. I christen him The Bloody Fear, and escort him through security.
Swift4prez joins me in the queue for the flight to Carcassonne. Maybe he's been in the airport since we abandoned him there after Parma. The Bloody Fear squats in the aisle between our seats, counting out the number of international caps on the Stade Toulousain starting XV to while away the flight time. Carcassonne airport doesn't bother with formalities like a terminal, so we are hunted out the gate to the car park. The Bloody Fear has gotten to Swift4prez too by now, and he needs some convincing to get on the airport bus. We make for the Citadel, figuring it might boost our confidence to hoist the Connacht flag atop a fortress. A bit of local cuisine and some wine set us up for the assault on the fortifications and Swifty gets the flag up there for long enough to make our point.
The train takes us to Toulouse and a rendezvous with Fourdogs in the Melting Pot. He and his allies have been there a few hours and have been measuring time in beer, so they already fancy a change of scenery. We make for De Danu to see our old friend Trevor, who dishes out complimentary whiskeys to compound the round of death that is rapidly emerging. A pair of English lads who work for BA get embroiled in the whole thing. One of them claims to have never had a hangover before and we are keen to introduce him to new experiences so we keep the beer flowing. They are over on some business involving EADS that the other guy doesn't want to first guy to say too much about, and are due to depart at 7am. Whether our actions in any way directly or indirectly caused the entire European aviation system to descend into chaos the next day and cause the IMF to miss the match will probably never be known, but it was fun watching him chat up those Welsh birds from Airbus. The evening ends with a vain attempt to try to sing songs with some French lads but we are overpowered by the background music.
Saturday has no morning to speak of and I am too shook for human company so I take a wander around town with The Bloody Fear, who has grown eighteen inches and lumbers around behind me reminding me of Connacht's defensive frailties. I had switched off the BBC Scotland online audio stream for the last ten minutes of the previous weekend's debacle so I only found out the final scoreline in the paper the next day. I have palpitations thinking of what Clement Poitrenaud is going to do to us. I accidentally go into a museum I was in the last time we played here and the constant deja-vu does nothing for my mental state. At this point I would settle for some more deja-vu on Sunday. A 24-3 defeat last time out doesn't sound like much, but it was a solid performance that laid the groundwork for the following week's heroics. I don't really know if there is any truth to the urban legend that we were the first set of away fans the Toulouse players walked over to applaud. I doubt anyone knows, probably not even the guy who made it up, but the fact is that they definitely did it, and if they don't do it again it'll be like a kick in the balls.
By kick-off time of the middle game on Saturday's schedule, I'm ready for a non-alcoholic beverage in The Melting Pot, but I realise to my horror it's the only place in France that doesn't sell coffee. The Sligo delegation has arrived by now and one of them convinces me to sample a red wine, which I nurse for several hours while discussing air travel delays and cancellations. It seems the PRL are up to their old tricks after all, playing havoc with the air traffic control. We round up Swift4prez and the Fourdogs Fourball to go for a slap up feed. All the restaurants seem to have massive lines of people outside. I know the socialists are back in power here but I wasn't expecting bread queues. Fourdogs is first to crack and make for McDonald's. Apparently he has family connections there. Two of us stand firm against the move and decamp to the nearest place we find with two seats and no chicken nuggets, and I order a massive grilled duck breast, so rare I'm not sure if it's just still warm from when they shot it. I fear I may die of e. coli but it would be a gallant and delicious death and I would have an excuse not to witness the potential pummelling in Sept Deniers the next day. Dessert consists of Pain Perdu, which basically is the most expensive and delicious slice of bread I have ever bought. Emboldened by the soakage and an overdue shot of coffee, we return to The Melting Pot to commence the serious business.
Fourdogs is resplendent in his kilt and sporting a moustache to rival my own. Not content with a fake plastic sgian dubh, he is packing a real dagger in his right sock, presumably in case the barman turns the music up too loud. Mahick has taken the precaution of producing dogtags, which she issues to Clanistas in descending order of probability that they will be found dead or unconscious between now and the flight home. Happy hour is now in full swing and I am in the somewhat novel position of being among the more coherent of the throng. I decide retrospectively that my decision to get utterly lorded the night before was a pre-planned, training ground move designed to keep me sensible the night before the game and have me in top condition for kick-off. More coaches should use this tactic. I get to the point where no more beer can fit past the duck and take the unprecedented decision to retire. The Don of the Tuam Ulster Mafia challenges me on the way out and insists I must join him in a whiskey, which is quite tasty, but very large. The appearance of a whiskey in my hand seems to act as some form of beacon, and further whiskeys start appearing from various quarters. Fearing a rapid descent into chaos, I scoff the stockpile and flee.
Match day starts less painfully than its predecessor, but The Bloody Fear is larger and more intimidating than ever, and this morning he's reminding me of the odds. Toulouse are being quoted at two hundred to one on. Apparently Standard and Poor's are recommending that bet as a safe place to leave your money for eighty minutes if you consider the German bond market too big a risk. I decide to walk the half hour or so to the lunch at Le Huit to calm my nerves. Le Huit have an impressive set-up, with their own clubhouse out near the stadium, bar, big screen showing rugby, tables laid for a slap up feed. We'd better get one of these built before they come over. The atmosphere is starting to build now and the beer starts to flow.
Pennants are exchanged and a good bit of banter commences with the locals before a four course meal kicks off. Salad, Toulouse sausage (they just call it sausage here), surprise unidentified meat course and then cake. Excitement is building for the game but The Bloody Fear seems to be everywhere now, putting some people right off their food. Munster are well on their way to becoming the third Irish province to get a try bonus, serving as the perfect foil to magnify our predicted annihilation. A bit of a sing off commences and I have to crank out The West's Awake, though the thump of the table at the climax exposes shoddy workmanship and almost brings jugs of wine down on everyone. The Toulouse fans are in fine voice too as the craic mounts. This is the stuff we come on away trips for, both sides rising the passion together even if one half are quietly shitting themselves. If Mark McCafferty saw this he would package it up and try to give it away free as part of your broadband plan.
We head off towards the stadium with the Le Huit crew, merging with the crowds coming off the shuttle buses from the Metro station and crossing the canal via a footbridge. The bridge is very low and I wonder how the canal traffic deals with it. Someone helpfully points out that it's only for match days and they fold it back to the side of the canal the rest of the time. Jesus Christ, we're playing a team that have their own bridge! Under the underpass now and the Bloody Fear looms so large he can barely fit through. They are handing out free newspapers with the headline "En Route Vers La Victoire". On one hand this inflates the Bloody Fear more, but also it lets in a chink of light. They are expecting a ritual slaughter - they may very well get it, but handing out that newspaper already seems like their first unforced error. Through the gates and to the Buvette for a beer in a souvenir plastic cup and up into the cauldron. We are more or less together in one section behind the goals but there is a large drum positioned right beside us and it's not from Leitrim. The ground is full and we are heavily outnumbered. We can barely compete with the noise. A Sligo Rover goes down for another beer but I am so nervous at this point I decline. The last ten minutes before the teams emerge seems to last all season. A minute's silence for Nelson Mandela brings some much needed perspective and then battle is joined.
Almost straight away they are up in our face and bearing down on the goal line we are stationed behind. Tackled. Cleared. Relief. More attacks, three pointers turned down as the bonus point is chased right from the kick off, but we hold out for the first ten minutes and then amazingly take the lead. Nice one, but this happened last time too. It felt good to lead here then and it feels good now. We feel the inevitable is coming but three points settle the nerves a little. Then we're on the attack again and looking dangerous in their 22 when Dan drops one over. The longer it stays six nil, the more the confidence grows, but it does nothing for my nerves. It's difficult to pick up my beer in one hand without sloshing it about so I clutch it in two hands like an old woman. Half time approaches and Toulouse have yet to score. I fear the half time talk they are going to get. Tactics will change and the video analyst will have us all figured out. A whole different Stade Toulousain will emerge. It's time for a ballsy play. I give Pat Lam the nod and he implements Operation False Sense of Security. Jean Pascal Barraque is allowed to coast through unmolested on the stroke of half time and they go in a point up. That'll take the wind out of Guy Noves' hairdryer.
Half time at the Buvette and people are generally happy, we'd have taken it beforehand, etc. The onslaught is nonetheless feared. But after the break it's as you were with Connacht on top. George isn't far away but no joy, back for advantage and Dan taps over. Then a botched restart and a blistering attack from the scrum. Down the touchline, offload, agonisingly close, quick ruck, burrowed over, started and finished by Marmion. Nine points up. The fear of capitulation recedes and is replaced by a new feeling. Fear of victory. Or is it fear of being desperately close to victory and not quite there. Toulouse are on the attack now as they realise there is actually a slight risk they might not win. Some poor clearances undo good defensive work, attack builds, then they lose it forward and Connacht have it somehow. Duffy and then Marmion storming up the wing. Lovely flat pass to Henshaw and he's in at a canter. Under the posts. Our posts. Crowd goes mental. Robbie looks up approvingly. Three scores up now and the prospect of victory is all too real. But wait, Marius Mitrea is drawing widescreen TVs in the air with his fingers. It all looks good to me, but the TMO orders popcorn and puts his feet up to enjoy the show. He winds the tape back so far that at one point you can actually see Robbie's umbilical cord. He finds a knock-on somewhere in the car park at the far end. Gutted. It seems like no time before Dusautoir is over and it's like we've let in two tries. A two point lead cannot be defended for 15 minutes. Not with the bench they have. But we'll bloody well try. We need points though and a drop goal effort drifts. Can't sit back, we keep taking it to them. Two hands are not enough to keep my beer steady now so I gulp the last of it down. All around me people are wailing desperately, hurting, wanting, willing the clock on, looking up at the moon above as if it can help us. Come on moon, come on clock. And then a bloody penalty. To us! It's gonna be our day. They'd have a five point deficit to overcome, just like the All Blacks. Oh shit, wait. Straight as a die towards us but doesn't have the legs. The endless minutes. We can hold out now, we have to. The seconds tick down. Les Rouge et Noir can't seem to get over the half-way line. They inch into Beauxis range. No penalties please. Thirty seconds, picking and driving, desperate for a penalty, then the ball goes loose, Connacht dive, arm out, was that legal? Scrum given, to whom? Who cares? Red clock. Victoire! Victoire! Connacht a gagné!
Pandemonium. Hugs bordering on assualts. Grown men's tear ducts pressed hastily back into service after decades of near redundancy. "I didn't cry when my son was born," admits the Tuam Don, his briney cheeks glistening in the floodlights. The team march down, the crowd surges forward. Those who still have vocal cords sing at them. The rest jump around, not fully sure how to react. I am waiting for someone to ring me and tell me to get out of bed, I'm late for the match. Some people are literally pinching themselves. I try to explain that this doesn't work, that the body is in a state of paralysis during REM sleep therefore you won't be pinching yourself in reality. The way to ensure you are not dreaming is to try to access the logical functions of your brain, like reading and doing maths. They're controlled by the left hemisphere, which is hard to get hold of when dreaming. I read some text messages and factorise a few quadratic equations but I'm still not convinced. The security guys start to hunt us out of the ground but we don't want to leave. Eventually we move down the steps towards the Buvette for more hugs and handshakes. For the record, the Toulouse players didn't come over this time. And it wasn't a kick in the balls. We had set a different precedent tonight.
We go looking for the exit where the players come out but accidentally find ourselves drawn towards a rather plush bar under the main stand where trophies and bottles of wine are displayed artily around the place and the directions to the jacks are "turn left at the Heineken Cup". Some more beers are lined up and some singing breaks out. I start a rendition of Les Lacs du Connemara and it goes down like a collapsed lung, bar staff and punters jumping up and down and singing along. I look around at one stage and Trevor Brennan is filming me - the European rugby order really has been flipped on its head. Trevor gives a song or two himself and there are contributions from both sets of fans. Mark McCafferty puts in a bit for the broadcast rights to our sing song but we are already tied into a deal with Al-Jazeera. The insanity of the victors is matched only by the grace and magnanimity of the vanquished. Here are a bunch of lads that have just had the hearts ripped out of their ribcages and tossed at their feet for their perusal, and their first reaction is to shake hands, sing songs, and buy us bottles of a type of fizzy wine they invented. Eventually they want to shut up and we drift out of the stadium. On the way out I think I spot The Bloody Fear, slumped in a corner, struggling to breathe, with the staghorn handle of a sgian dubh protruding from his left lung and a trickle of claret issuing from the corner of his mouth. See you on Wednesday biatch.
The Sligo chapter and I take a lift from Toulouse fan, who turns out not to be anywhere near as sober as we assumed. Paul Goze has clearly spiked his drink in an attempt to wipe us out and put a stop to all this buddy buddy stuff between rival fans. A hair-raising ride takes us to De Danu, where the proprietor is now wearing a Connacht jersey and there is more than the average Sunday night attendance. Onwards to The Melting Pot, which is heaving with unbridled insanity. Several people have taken leave of their shirts and at least one of his trousers. I fear that a wily Frenchman must have convinced them to swap their clothes for some Stade Toulousain branded magic beans, but I am reliably informed they are Welsh and the Castres defeat has affected them in a way no-one could predict. Down the back we find the Fourball, the Hicks and Swift4prez and several takes of the Rattling Bog are attempted before being halted on medical advice. I find the Tuam Don up at the bar and we start getting heavy into the Bushmills while he struggles with basic motor skills. I have never seen a bunch of intoxicated people so universally happy - the contrast with the dark foreboding of the previous night is phenomenal.
I strike up a conversation with an attractive Frenchwoman who has a massive tin of tobacco and a contraption for making her own cigarettes, apparently for tax reasons. I pretend to like cigarettes so I can hang around with her. This is the last thing my lungs need after the day they've had. Most of the staff that were working in the bar the previous day are back in there returning their wages to the till and claiming that it was the best night ever in there. I bet they say that to every set of fans that beat Toulouse in the Stade Ernest Wallon in the Heineken Cup. The crowd eventually begins to dissipate once the drink stops flowing. An intrepid crew heads on a mission to an alleged nightclub but I begin to think I might call it a night. I see the cigarette machine woman heading home with one of the bar staff, and as I watch that lovely bottom disappear into the Haute-Garonne night, I finally realise for the first time that we definitely did beat Toulouse.
Because in my dreams, I always get the girl.
Clan on Tour
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