CLERMONT AUVERGNE WEREN’T THE ONLY ONES WHO FOUND SATURDAY’S TOP 14 FINAL AGAINST STADE FRANCAIS A TORMENT. PITCHSIDE IN PARIS, OTHERS WERE HAVING TROUBLES OF THEIR OWN.
Ah, Paris. Has France ever had a better idea? Except that last weekend, of course, it wasn’t just Paris; it was Paris and a ticket to the Top 14 Final – the most vibrant rugby occasion in the entire world – pitching into Sky’s live coverage from the Stade de France alongside the venerable Ieuan Evans and the lyrical Mark Robson. Thus does life’s burgeoning Bucket List grow ever-so-slightly shorter.
Checking in at Heathrow, I was a puddle of anticipation; the screaming, yellow hordes of Clermont Auvergne, the shocking, pink battalions of Stade Francais Paris; the pomp and the pageantry; a mighty match played out to a Shakespearian denouement after which, entranced by the occasion, we would doubtless spend the smaller hours of a warm Parisian night re-living it all over a beer and a bite in a Left Bank brasserie before adjourning to three plump pillows in our bijou, Seine-side hotel.
Except that the flight smelled of regurgitated rusks, a steward tipped someone else’s tomato juice over my shirt and we – finally – collided with Paris on the third bounce two hours behind schedule. Worse was to follow. The hotel turned out to be not on the Boulevard St Michel but in Terminal Two at Charles de Gaulle Airport where Room 259 offered an uninterrupted view of the dent we’d just put in the runway.
Ah, well, I thought, at least it’s convenient. Except that after the match, when we finally tottered back into reception at one in the morning, the chef and the bar-staff were nothing but a rumour, which meant that dinner was a lukewarm can of beer and a sawn-off tin of ‘Pringles’ from Mark Robson’s mini-bar.
Of course none of this would have been an issue had the game not kicked off in the middle of the night, nine o’clock being about the time when I’m usually looking forward to a mug of hot cocoa and the Shipping Forecast. I suspect we were indecently adjacent to Ieuan Evans’ bedtime too (we are of similar ages, aches and pains) but – stoically – the two of us waded through the swelling scene on the stadium concourse to record what we hoped would be a colourful ‘as-live’ link for Sky Sports News. Next time we’ll be more careful what we wish for given that, back at the satellite truck, it turned out that our one audible take was accompanied by an inebriated and tone deaf Parisian singing a song in French about, well, his walnuts. I’m not quite sure why people feel the need to share such intimacies so loudly and so publicly but clearly, they do. Saving OFCOM the paperwork, we scraped the piece straight into the bin.
Things weren’t much better inside the stadium where, in the currency of accreditation, we appeared to be holding drachma. I couldn’t get into the tunnel nor could I loiter near the mouth of it. A man with a walkie-talkie wouldn’t let me stand here, a woman with a clipboard wouldn’t let me walk there, all of which meant that, not surprisingly, interviews were proving elusive. So Ieuan and I re-formed for a live ‘stand-upper’ into the top of the show in which we, finally, put some runs on the board. Certainly the boy Evans was imperious: passionate, articulate and totally commanding. It was like being on stage with Olivier.
But then heading back to the TV zone through the bowels of the stadium – and perhaps still giddy with admiration at Ieuan’s arresting performance – I opened the wrong door and went down into the wrong stairwell only to turn back and find there was no handle on the inside of the door. Frantically, I pummelled on the paneling. Nothing. I pummelled harder and, for good measure, threw in a plaintive scream in my very best French. Still nothing.
This was looking awkward. The game was due to kick off in twenty minutes and I was going to miss it. In fact – sod the game – I was going to be here all night, perhaps even for all eternity. My wife, my children, the builders doing the loft conversion – they’ve been up there so bloody long, it almost feels as though they’re family – I might never see any of them again. But then suddenly – mercifully – the door blew open and a security guard with biceps the size of Bordeaux and no obvious neck frowned at me. ‘Oui?’ he said. Oblivious to the fug of Gitanes and, by now, almost tearful, I thrust my credentials under his nose and kissed him on both cheeks. He didn’t look overly impressed.
Back by the pitch as the teams chugged out in a deluge of noise, I tried to gather myself. I wasn’t exactly playing a blinder here but, hopefully, Mark Robson’s wondrous weave of words up in the commentary box would redeem us all, with a little help from the dashing Clermont Auvergne and the strapping Stade Francais Paris – musketeers to a man – who would surely serve up a fitting finale of free-wheeling rugby. As it turned out, we got two mammoths wrestling in a pit of tar. Stade kicked aimlessly, ran down blind alleys, dropped passes, fumbled lineouts and – effortlessly – got on the wrong side of a tetchy referee, so the fact that they won tells you everything you need to know about Clermont Auvergne who, as we have learned in the bigger games, are the enigma with no variation.
The final whistle may have been a mercy but the aftermath was an acute frustration. Last and least in the rigid protocol of interviews, we ended up chasing the cavorting Parisians across the pitch where we finally snatched a quick word with a – disappointingly – sanguine Julien Dupuy. I was hoping for a quiet tear and a trembling jaw but – spent as he was, bless him – he sounded like a man trying to recall last week’s shopping list.
Not surprisingly, the raw emotion was to be found at the other end of the pitch. The heft of any competition is always best measured not by the delight of the winners but by the desolation of the losers and there were several Jaunards in tears. Nick Abendanon – understandably – was a tumble of words and a jumble of emotions. Regretfully by the time he’d offered us his last, glazed shrug, we were already off air.
The last RER to the airport had long since gone. Traipsing the streets of St. Denis with a heavy heart and a hundredweight of kit, we carjacked a taxi and headed back to the hotel where, exhausted, defeated and ravenous, we gathered – chez the hospitable Monsieur Robson – to share some rueful laughter and the contents of his mini-bar. Next year, apparently, the Top 14 final is heading to Spain and to the Nou Camp Stadium, no less. We already have three rooms on hold at Barcelona Airport.
14 JUNE 2015