Just over four years ago I was on the road to France. Off to Lens with a few friends to watch England play the USA in their opening game of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
By some miracle I had managed to buy a pack of four tickets to every single England game up to the semi-final stages. The plan was to travel with friends who either a) liked rugby, or b) could speak French. Even better if they fitted the bill on both counts.
The first game set the tone for the whole competition. England were rubbish and fortunate to run out 28 – 10 winners. The support was fantastic. Our little group of fans that had congregated (outside a pub) on a side street in Lens, ended up on the front page of the local newspaper the following day. No doubt with positive comments about our singing, traffic direction (apparently “les beep beep!” works if you want to encourage a French motorist to use their horn), scrummaging, line-out demonstrations… and all round good humour. The police on crowd control duty looked suitably bemused, shrugged their shoulders and then went off on a cigarette break.
Game two, against South Africa. Up in the cheap seats we walked in resplendent in our white England shirts, only to discover the block was full of about 300 Springbok fans. It would have been OK but for the scoreline. England 0, South Africa 36. By half-time my vocal support had dropped to barely a whisper as my head sunk into my hands. Some chap tapped me on the back and commented, “Don’t worry mate, you’ll get us next time”. Oh, if only!
Side note. At the time I was working at Southampton Solent University. On the day after the England v South Africa game we were holding a university open day. I had to be there, marketing the Business School was my job. So at 4:30am I was on my way to Charles de Gaulle airport to fly back to England. At 09:00 I walked through the doors of the University ready to start work. That’s dedication beyond the cause!
Game two done with, I was taking heart in the fact that if we didn’t make the quarter-finals, let along the semi’s, I’d get my money back on the tickets. Yet, our performances picked up. OK, not sublime rugby. But we were functional and showed experience if not much in the way of flair. Most important of all, we kept winning.
The pre and post game happenings remained…well…bizarre to say the least. We hitch-hiked part way to the England – Samoa game in Nantes. It was a last ditch attempt to make the stadium in time for kick off. The look on the face of Sarah’s dad was priceless as we started bundling into the back of a strangers car.
Then there was Eddie who joined us for England v Tonga in Paris. He lost his ticket 30 seconds after I put it in his hands. Very fortunate that there were only three of us going to that game.
The most unique feature of that trip was Eddie greeting two Cameroonian guys in the middle of Paris in their own language. Some small, white, English guy in the middle of Paris says hello to two Africans in their own language! Who says the world isn’t small!
Then came the victory over Australia in Marseilles. That was priceless. As was the train journey back to Nice where we were staying.
A couple of Australians were providing a running commentary, relayed by mobile phone, from the game in Cardiff where France were disposing of New Zealand. A unique situation if there was one. But this was then topped by the train guard giving his best rooster impersonation over the PA system in celebration of the French victory.
Finally, came the England win over France in Paris. A wonderful night. Topped by meeting the same group of guys outside of Stade de France that we met outside of the pub in Lens. It was just like meeting old friends. More line-out demonstrations, a rendition of the Gambler in honour of the England team and meeting a Kenny Rogers look-a-like (or was it really him? Judge for yourself in Kenny’s message to the team). Then we won. We beat France. We were in the final.
All good things come to an end. After the semi-final French supporters were selling their final tickets for 500+ Euro. Out of my reach I’m afraid. Plus another weekend of commuting to France, I couldn’t do it.
But those six weeks were wonderful. An amazing experience. Not just because of the rugby, but because of Tany, Sarah, Gordon, Claire and Eddie, who came with me to the games – and thanks to the many people we met. The guys from ‘up north’ who we met in Lens and again in Paris, the South African couple in Paris, the guy who turned up in his pyjamas, Phil de Glanville who joined us for a rendition of Jerusalem, Mark Regan who took the time to answer my questions about facing up to the Haka, Xavier and his restaurant… and so many others.
Here’s hoping that those who have made it to New Zealand have an equally awesome time. That England make another final. And that I can save enough for another pack of four tickets for the next World Cup in England in 2015.