Beware junction 8 on the M11!
What a weekend but it so nearly didn't happen. A ‘disagreement’ with junction 8 on the M11 meant that it took me well over an hour to do the 3 miles from the motorway to Stansted Airport and I arrived 5 minutes after they had closed my flight to Carcassonne. No amount of pleading or begging could get them to let me on the flight but they did book me on the later plane and I therefore had seven hours to kill in the airport. Never mind! O'Neills was open for a big breakfast and a couple of pints whilst watching Britain lose the Rugby League and then watching England's bowlers get caned to all parts of the ground by the West Indies batsmen. The flight time finally arrived and onto the plane to be greeted by two other Irish supporters taking the alternative route to Toulouse. They were hiring a car and the test of negotiating the Carcassonne buses and the S.N.C.F. was avoided. Thanks guys.
We eventually staggered (after visiting most of Toulouse in our search for the hotel) into the IBIS to find the usual suspects in the bar drinking "Le Grand 1664" with champagne chasers! A rapid turnaround and a wander to the Place du Capitol to find that Irish had taken over a bar. There were a few tired and emotional people on display but no sign of Griff who I was supposed to be meeting - he had been mentioned in dispatches as enjoying a long and Rosé fuelled lunch. After a bite to eat with some excellent wine we found our way to the Killarney Bar. A text from Griff who lazarus-like had risen from his hotel bed and joined us in the bar. Many renditions of the Fields, the Marsaillaise and Ireland's call were "sung" and a tired but happy group found their way back to the hotel at four o'clock (exactly 24 hours after I had left home!).
A bleary eyed group of supporters discussed the best way to get to the stadium over breakfast. Despite rumours to the contrary the restaurant above the market at Victor Hugot Place was open for business and an excellent lunch (with the obligatory Rosé of course (although this particular version of the London Irish favourite lunch-time tipple tasted more like paint stripper) in excellent company was enjoyed. We arrived at the ground 2 hours before kick off to find a large contingent of Irish supporters already there enjoying a few beers in the warm sunshine (27 °C when we landed at Carcassonne). We enjoyed a few beers, some good natured socialising with the locals and (re-)acquainting ourselves with friends, old and new, decked out in green. What a stadium - with immaculate training pitches and a tennis club attached - we can only dream of such facilities. Two pieces of bad news - some Irish supporters had had their tickets stolen (and some local youths turned up trying to use the tickets much to the interest of the local constabulary) and we heard that Rikki Flutey had been injured in the warm up and was out of the game (and possibly out for a month!). Barry Everitt in to out-half as replacement but otherwise the team was as announced. The programme listed our injured players as Flavin, Sackey and Darren Edwards! We wandered into the very impressive bowl of a stadium to hear the Toulousian drums and chanting. Not to be outdone the several hundred Irish supporters added to the atmosphere with renditions of ‘The Fields’ and ‘Irish, Irish.’ A few cries of ‘You only drum when we’re singing’ went up as initially the away supporters were the ones generating noise. A T.V. crew took an interest in the Irish supporters which prompted a fresh chorus of ‘Irish, Irish’ followed by ‘We only sing when you’re filming….!’
And so to the game – a dream start. Early possession through a couple of phases (with quick recycled ball) and our now famous ‘off-loading’ saw Delon receive the ball in acres of space allowing him to canter over the line. Barry did the honours – Irish 7-0 up and a few of us calling for the full-time whistle. Toulouse responded as many of us expected with some fast-paced attacking rugby of their own and, following a successful penalty by Elissalde, scored a try of their own through Jauzion after some slick handling (and admittedly weak Irish tackling) down their left flank. Try duly converted and another penalty followed soon leaving Irish 13-7 down. Despite this Irish were securing good quality possession especially from the line-out where Hudson had, by some distance, his best game since seeing the light and moving up the M4. In fact I felt that the front-five outplayed their opposition and this is the concern that many of the Toulousian supporters themselves expressed after the game. However Toulouse scored again and it could, so frustratingly have been an Irish score. Irish were in possession but coughed up the ball in midfield. The Toulousians broke right from the ensuing breakdown and did their best to mess up a 4 on 0 overlap! However Xavier Garbajosa stepped in off the wing off his right foot to beat the covering defence and score a try that was converted – 20-7. There was just time for Barry to kick another penalty to bring the scores back to 20-10 at half-time.
It was the last thing that Barry did in the match as he went off at half-time with a leg injury. Declan Danaher was also replaced at half-time by Olivier Magne. Catt moved to out-half, Mapusua to inside and Tiesi to outside centre. Any tactical discussion at half-time will have gone out of the window as, within a couple of minutes of the re-start, Mike Catt also succumbed to a leg injury leaving Irish to bring on Ritchie Rees with Dodge moving to ten and so forcing Irish to play the whole of the second half without a specialized out-half on the pitch. However Dodge had, I thought, an excellent second-half with a trademark crunching tackle on Gareth Thomas soon after moving to ten demonstrating that he wouldn’t be a defensive weak link. Toulouse continued to run at the Irish but managed to spill the ball in the Irish 22. It was picked up by Delon who hoofed the ball down the pitch with Delon and Topsy in pursuit. It was only the pace of Heymans that saved Toulouse as he sprinted back to his 22 and despite the attention of three Irish players he managed to hold onto the ball long enough to allow his support to arrive and not too long to allow Mr Owens to give the penalty that I (with my strictly neutral Journo’s hat on) felt Irish deserved. It was something that he was particularly hot on all game – except on this one occasion. Toulouse recycled the ball through a number of phases and, following some excellent handling from Gareth Thomas, scored their third try through Fritz. Another easy conversion and Irish, with their makeshift backline, the sun on the Toulousian backs and the North and South stands in full volume were looking down the barrel of a gun at 27-10 down.
photo by tv_dave
It is of great credit to the players that, despite all this, they were the better team for the final twenty minutes. A sustained period of pressure in the Toulousian 22 allowed Tiesi a dart at the line but, to the great cheers of the locals, he was picked up and knocked backwards. The cheers were soon Irish as Tiesi unloaded to the oncoming Kieran Roche who barged over for a try converted by Delon. 27-17. Further pressure by Irish resulted in a desperate and, to my eyes, cynical offside by Heymans as Irish tried to get quick ball – he was duly sin-binned. The stadium was now rocking as The Toulousians realised that their side were down to fourteen men and was under severe pressure and the Irish supporters once again found their voices as The Exiles supporters contemplated that they actually had a chance of pinching the match. It was at this point that I spotted Brian C up in the south stand passing on the finer points of drumming to the Toulousians! However Irish failed to capitalize on a 5 metre scrum against the fourteen men and the chance of a famous victory was lost as Mr Owens penalised Irish for holding on at the breakdown allowing Toulouse to clear their lines. A further penalty for crossing as Irish launched another assault was converted from the half-way line to leave Toulouse 30 – 17 up. The party in the stands was in full swing now and when Irish were penalised yet again for holding on as they once more ‘gave it a lash’ and attempted to run the ball from deep. You could sense that the momentum had turned and that Toulouse would secure the bonus point. This they did with the last move of the game by rumbling over from the line-out after kicking the ball into the corner. Irish were out on their feet having given everything. I was proud of them and the final score of 37-17 flattered Toulouse. Many thanks to all the players who trudged over to the East stand for a well-deserved round of applause – much appreciated. The Toulouse supporters where very gracious in victory but they were very confused that some of us were Ireland supporters and some of our number (misguidedly) support England. London Irish is a difficult concept to get across in another language! Three players stood out for me – Hudson, Dodge and Mapusua (who looks a better and better acquisition every time I see him play) although honourable mentions must go to the front five in general who were outstanding as a unit.
Griff and I were fortunate enough to get a lift back to the hotel from some locals who could clearly see we were lost and probably thought that we weren’t safe to be out on our own. The post-mortems were in full flow in the hotel bar. I thought it was our best performance of the season but not everyone was as convinced as I was (it must have been the Rosé at lunch time!) especially with some of the first up tackling and the ball retention. The discussions went on long into the night over an excellent curry and a gentle bar-crawl back to the hotel. One thing everyone seemed to agree on – what a weekend. I hope that we don’t have to wait another 3 years for a repeat trip to Toulouse although, personally, I’ll probably avoid Stansted next time!