This past weekend I travelled to Paris and Toulouse to be the TV Match Official (TMO) for two games in the opening round of the 2011-12 Heineken Cup campaign. First up was the game between Racing Metro 92 and Cardiff Blues in Stade Colombes on Friday night followed by a quick TGV journey to Toulouse for the Stade game against Gloucester on Sunday afternoon.
Stade Colombes is where France used to play international rugby up to 1973 (Ireland won their last game there, leading to a drought until the famous win in 2000) and it also hosted the 1924 Olympic Games where the USA won the rugby gold medal. By modern standards it’s a tired old ground that cannot be compared to modern facilities, which is probably the reason why it served as the location for the film “Escape to Victory“. Even so, it was nice to be able to handle a game in one of rugby’s oldest international grounds.
From a travel perspective, in Paris we stayed at the Pullman Hotel near La Défense and ate in the Sebillon restaurant in Neuilly on the evening before the game. Both are recommended if you need to visit the north-western side of Paris. The Pullman hotel is situated beside the CNIT congress center and a major Metro/RER station on line 1, which is one of the best metro lines to get to major Paris landmarks. The Sebillion is 4 metro stops away from CNIT towards the center of Paris. It is a typical Paris restaurant of the old style (think of waiters in black jackets and white aprons serving in rooms reminiscent of the 1930s complete with lots of brass lamps). The food is very good, although the foie gras might be a tad rich if you’re watching your cholesterol levels.
Heineken Cup regulations require refereeing teams to be “in country” the day before a game, just in case weather conditions prevent travel. Sometimes this is a pain because you end up spending a lot of time waiting around for a game but it’s understandable when you consider the kind of weather disruption that we’ve experienced over the past two European winters. It’s always easy to kill time in Paris as there’s a ton of things to do or visit. We visited on Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I (on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November, 1918) and thought it appropriate to visit the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides, the location of a number of exhibits covering various aspects of the French military since 1643 as well as Napoleon’s tomb.
It would be easy to spend a complete day in the museum. I hadn’t visited it since the early 1980s and my memory was of a somewhat dusty and packed environment. However, the museum has been completely revamped and is a pleasure to walk through. Over a period of three hours, We got to visit the halls holding exhibits for the two World Wars and “From Louis XIV to Napoleon III” where there’s all manner of things to see from V1/V2 rockets used in World War II to an armored breastplate worn by a French cuirassier at Waterloo who had been killed due to some terrific blow to the left-hand side where a great hole had been torn in both the front and back plates.
Getting back to rugby, Cardiff won the game 20-26 in a reasonably tight encounter. Only one TMO intervention was required to confirm a try that was dotted down tight to the left-hand corner flag. The excellent replay facilities provided by the French TV crew made it relatively easy to make the decision. The late evening (9pm) start meant that we didn’t finish until close to 11pm. Racing Metro did a nice job taking care of us with a meal afterwards and we got back to the hotel just before 1am.
And then on to Toulouse. I like to travel by train and the French TGV service is usually excellent. Alas, it was not so on Saturday as SNCF (the French train operating company) decided to first pause the train for nearly an hour outside Bordeaux and then stop in Montauban to have everyone scramble off the TGV to another platform to get on a crowded regional train for the last 30km to Toulouse. The upshot was an unpleasant conclusion to the journey and a late arrival into Toulouse.
I stayed in the Grand Hotel de l’Opera in Place Capitole. Usually Irish refereeing teams use the Pullman or Crowne Plaza hotels when we are in Toulouse so this was the first time that I’d stayed in the Grand Hotel. The decor of the room didn’t especially please me because I’m not a fan of deep red wallpaper and heavy brown furniture that created an impression of what I think the inside of a fin de siècle bordello might have looked like. In any case, the room was clean, bed was comfortable, and the shower was good and that’s all that is really important.
Dinner followed the viewing of Munster’s great escape at home to Northampton. We headed to J’Go, a restaurant owned by some rugby people that specializes in food from the south of France. I’ve eaten in their restaurants in Paris and Toulouse and have never had a bad meal in either place. Absolutely recommended if you like duck, lamb, or pork (no steaks here) and the frites maison (chunky chipped potatoes cooked in duck fat) are delicious if potentially heart-threatening.
Sunday dawned bright and clear. My after-breakfast stroll took me to the market in Place Victor Hugo where I found a wonderful combination of bustle, activity, food, and noise gathered around stalls selling everything from coils of thick sausages and confit de canard smothered in white duck grease to the feet of veal and pigs, ready to be stuffed and consumed on a Sunday table. Freshly killed (or so the sign proclaimed) hares and rabbits stared out at the passing crowd, their eyes seemingly shocked at what had happened to them. Cheese and wine were available alongside many types of bread, all of varieties totally unavailable in a supermarket, which is the reason why the French love shopping for food in markets.
The game between Toulouse and Gloucester was preceded by some matches involving ten year olds on the main pitch at Sept-Derniers (the home stadium for Stade Toulousain). What really took our attention was the eleven year old referee. It was fantastic to see someone so young controlling a game – and doing it well. Simon McDowell and I walked over to talk to the young referee at half-time and discovered that he didn’t play rugby and only wanted to referee. Simon gave him an IRFU pin, something that I am sure he will treasure for ever, and we offered as much encouragement as we could give to someone at the start of his refereeing career.
Toulouse won the game 21-17. The purists were probably offended by Gloucester’s decision to accept their bonus-point loss when they kicked the ball out of play when in possession at full-time, but they had probably calculated that coming out of Toulouse with one point and restricting Toulouse to a four-point win was probably as good a result as they were likely to get. Toulouse have to go to Gloucester in the last game in the pool and Gloucester probably figure that they can get more out of that fixture than Toulouse allowed them today so overall they should be ahead. We shall see.
So there we are. An interesting weekend of Heineken Cup rugby in France with the added bonus that Leinster gained a good draw against Montpellier, Munster beat Northampton in a thriller, and Ulster beat Clermont-Ferrand. Of the four Irish teams, only Connacht came up short and that was in their first Heineken Cup fixture. Of course, Connacht is in the same group as Toulouse and Gloucester and I suspect that they will have some influence over the eventual group standings. Lots more rugby to come over the winter. It’s nice to be in Heineken Cup mode again.