ulster and u

EUROPEAN WEEKENDS ARE – AT ONCE – AN EXCITEMENT AND AN EXHAUSTION, NONE MORE SO THAN ROUND FIVE’S ROAD TRIP FROM BELFAST TO PARIS. OUTDOORS IN THE WIND AND THE RAIN AT A SALTY RAVENHILL; INDOORS IN A SPACE-AGE ARENA IN DOWNTOWN PARIS. SATURDAY AND SUNDAY WERE A REAL RUGBY CONTRAST.

Belfast, it was once said, is the ugly child you love the most, which is a little harsh if you’ve ever spent ten minutes in Donegall Square contemplating the Edwardian elegance of City Hall. But no question it’s the warmth and the wit of the town that makes you – made me – fall in love with the place. ‘How come you’re all so bloody friendly?’ I asked the taxi-driver as we rolled over the Lagan and past the Beacon of Hope last Friday night. ‘Ah, now, we’ve always loved everyone else,’ he twinkled. ‘It’s just each other we can’t stand’.

Rugby’s a weird but wonderful phenomenon in Belfast; a rabid and essentially white-collar enthusiasm in what, in sporting terms, is a traditionally blue-collar city yet, for all that, one which unites the province like little else. As Willie-John McBride put it, when you come to Ulster you’re not playing a team you’re playing a country and Ravenhill on a European weekend has a Test Match intensity; the more so when your arse has been scorched in the past few weeks and even your own players – Iain Henderson – are openly, rightly questioning the dressing room’s commitment to the cause.

So if they’d had their heads screwed on, La Rochelle would’ve realised they were walking into a broad-brogued backlash on Saturday lunchtime, wild weather, teeming terraces and an Ulster team hell-bent on rediscovering a little self-respect. Frankly, it was exactly what sport should be: primal, personal and, in the teeth of the fretful elements, a true contrast of styles.

La Rochelle – as ever – were going with the Musketeer game-plan, all slice and dice. One day, I swear, they will run onto the pitch wearing ‘cavaliers’ and ostrich plumes. Ulster, on the other hand, were all bristles; relentless, resourceful and with Rory Best, who – freak statistic – hadn’t won in an Ulster shirt for 386 days, looking like a man hell-bent on either walking off the field a winner or being buried somewhere on the halfway line. Rarely has he made a better fist of wearing the most famous forename and surname in Northern Irish sport.

Pitch-side, though, it was hard not to be hypnotised by the La Rochelle Head Coach, Patrice Collazo. The former Toulouse prop has adopted the singular habit of the former Toulouse Coach, Guy Noves and become a chained Alsatian on the side-line, barking at his players, growling at the officials, snarling, prowling, an incessant, over-exuberant parent at the Tag Rugby Festival whom you fervently wish would just shut up and let his boys get on with it.

And as much as Collazo is – clearly – a father-figure to his team, a man who’s fashioned La Rochelle to ‘jouez le beau jeu’, you wonder whether his style is actually getting in the way of his players, so dominant a presence, so much ‘le patron’ that, under pressure, his side look incapable of thinking their own way out of tight corners. At some point even the best coaches need to shut up and let the players think for themselves. Collazo – by contrast – is a Head Coach who not only leads out his team for the warm-up but who doesn’t tie up his shoelaces, neither of which suggests he’s thinking like an adult.

Ulster will doubtless savour their gritty win but will they – you wonder – come to rue the opportunity missed in the last gasp; namely to secure their own bonus point and take away La Rochelle’s. Jason Eaton – gentleman and scholar – didn’t exactly look heart-broken to be heading home with a mere point given Harlequins ‘chez lui’ next week looks like a banker fiver while Rory Best – on the flash stand post the final whistle with his boy Ben – sounded relieved enough to have turned a corner and kept Ulster’s destiny in their own hands. Context is – always – everything.

Ieuan Evans was alongside in the cab to the airport and on the post-match flight to Birmingham, which was splendid, comradely news. Snuggled into the welcome fug of a warm taxi, we fell into a conversation about famous tableaux we’d been involved in; ‘Iron’ recollecting a photograph he’d once been a part of with Harris and O’Toole and me recalling a chum who – long story – once ended up being invited to dinner in New York with Matthau and Lemmon.

At which point Marty, the taxi driver, chipped in with an anecdote about not just meeting Woody Harrelson in a bar in San Francisco but laying him out. Excuse me? ‘Well, he was a bit pissed, so he was,’ said Marty, ’and he wanted to do a T-shirt swap and I said no and he got a bit out of order so I lamped him one.’ Indeed impressed as I was to hear that ‘Iron’ had been snapped with the two greatest hell-raisers in British and Irish theatre – O’Toole was once asked to leave a Bristol pub in the wee small hours and, on the spot, wrote out a cheque and bought the place so he and Harris could carry on drinking – I still think laying out Woody ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ Harrelson in a San Francisco bar is the trump card. This, at the risk of labouring the point, is one of the many reasons why I adore the people of Belfast.

‘Iron’ Evans, I hear you ask? Yes, well, apologies but that’s A Mother Thing, specifically my mother who can’t pronounce ‘Ieuan’ and who, instead, refers to The Welsh Eminence as ‘Iron’ Evans, as in ‘your father says you’re in Belfast this weekend with Iron.’ Indeed, I mentioned this to ‘Iron’ as we sat and waited for our flight to Birmingham, The Great Man nodding his head and pronouncing himself more than satisfied with his steely soubriquet, as you would if you’d played for Wales seventy-two times and only made six tackles. Hey, we jest.

‘Iron’ had a drive home from Birmingham while I had a night at the ‘Novotel’ and a fight for survival in Departures first thing on Sunday morning when I’d been expecting some peace and quiet. Instead it appeared the entire West Midlands was fleeing an invading army, added to which an infant two rows back on the flight to Paris had a scream that could shatter glass. I don’t mind mewling children – I often feel like crying when I’m on a plane – but this was a torture. You could sense the entire plane stiffening every time she opened her mouth.

On the upside, though, ‘Air France’ gave me a complimentary coffee and a ‘Sunday Times’, a paper I hadn’t read in many a long year and thankfully so given it appears to be little more than a wider, taller version of the ghastly ‘Daily Mail’. Let’s face it, when your chief columnists are Clarkson, Ferguson, Liddle and Stuart Barnes, your next stop is National Socialism.

Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport and I have a long-standing hate-hate relationship, so parking by the perimeter fence next to the spot where they blow up suspicious baggage came as no surprise; likewise the three-wheeled navette to the terminal, which took twenty minutes to arrive and forty more to find the tradesman’s entrance. The Biometric Passport Machine rejected the five Frenchmen in the queue ahead of me but, optimist that I am, I still gave it a shot. ‘Acces Interdit’. If only the Germans had found it this difficult to get into France in 1940 we could have saved ourselves six years of blood, sweat and toil, that and Christopher Nolan’s uncharacteristically asinine ‘Dunkirk’. It’s the boats, Chris. The story’s the boats, not the beach.

Outside – finally outside – the taxi driver spoke less French than me, a startling development given there are pieces of furniture that speak foreign languages better than I do. ‘L’U Arena, Nanterre’, I said, five times at varying speeds. I might just as well have asked him to take me to Ebbing, Missouri. I don’t wish to appear intolerant but this is a professional, Parisian taxi-driver who’s never heard of a 32,000-seat stadium that’s been under construction for six years in the very heart of his city.

I gave him the address – Rue des Sorins – and he pulled out a magnifying glass to try to read it. ‘Boulevard de Sirons .. ?’ Not only, it appeared, could he not speak the language but reading it was beyond him too. Finally we managed to crowbar the street into the GPS and €70 later – hey presto – we were by the front door in downtown Nanterre exchanging heartfelt goodbyes.

From the outside L’U Arena almost defies description; modular and with a glass-scaled façade it looks a little like an overweight armadillo. Inside, though, it’s a jaw-dropper, part bonkers, part brilliant; a vast cavern which, in concert hall mode, takes in 40,000 and in its rugby kit, the aforementioned 32,000. The shiny, synthetic pitch with its wide, white lines has an impossible richness of colour. Indeed you sense the whole place has drawn by someone at Disney. CJ Stander strolled out to sniff the air-conditioning. ‘Like a cinema, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘I’ll need a bag of popcorn at half-time.’

The one obvious question is, ‘does the roof open?’ and it doesn’t. ‘The opening and closing system would not have allowed a sufficient seal, at the decibel level, to respect the tranquility of the inhabitants during a concert’, said architect Christian de Portzamparc’s ludicrous interpreter. In other words, when the Rolling Stones christened the place back in October, you’d have been able to hear ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ on the outskirts of Calais.

The Arena has been ‘dirige par’ Jacky Lorenzetti, in much the same way as Jean-Luc Godard gave us ‘Breathless’. Once asked what he most wanted to achieve with Racing ’92 – the Top Fourteen perhaps: the Champions’ Cup – Le President had no hesitation. ‘L’Arena’, he said, and it’s taken nigh on a decade and €353 million to get it built. Not that he’s always got his own way. He wanted the All Blacks to open the stadium; Madame Lorenzetti wanted the Stones. Thus do even multi-millionaire property magnates meet – and marry – their match.

Sky Sports had sent three of us to Paris; K-dog, who’s unquestionably the finest TV cameraman in Northern Kent – see ‘Lions Tour Diary’ ad nauseam – my good self and a magic box called ‘Mobileview’, which meant we could send back ancillary pictures and interviews virtually as live. The one snag was having no other contact either way with London but – trust me – there are worse things that can befall a reporter than not being able to hear a producer.

We went outside amid a pickle of people to shoot some ‘colour’, which was predominantly beige. I asked a gendarme to wave a Munster flag at the camera. Had I asked him to wave his penis at the camera his answer could scarcely have been more aggressive or dismissive. K-dog dragged me away and around the nearest corner and gave me a small bollocking. Okay, yes, fair enough, I don’t like French policemen. Most of them, as Proust once said, are retired burglars.

Indeed, if you’ve a moment, I think it’s the intransigence of France – and French policemen – that grates the most. I had a pass, for example, that gave me access to the tunnel and to the Press Room on the fifth floor but – alas – not to the lift that connected the two and the small steward guarding the doors was having none of me. ‘Stairs?’ I said. He shook his stony head. ‘Non.’ So for the second time in two paragraphs, K-dog had to drag me away and round a corner, mindful, perhaps, of my oft-quoted dictum, ‘never waste time arguing with people you can beat up’. And he was, no question, a very small steward.

The game? Yes, well, it had its moments, not least the occasional fanfare of horns over the PA while the match was still in motion. The ‘son et lumiere’ light show, the dry ice, all that Euro-pop prancing about, I didn’t mind any of that but none of it was a patch on Keith Earls. Eye-catching in a slightly different way – truly, rugby is a game for all sizes – was the Racing tight-head, Ben Tameifuna, who’s listed as 134kgs but who’s a six foot cube. Most hookers bind under their props’ armpits but all Camille Chat could reach was the number three on Tameifuna’s back.

Others have had similar problems. Discovered, allegedly, in a gutter behind the Champs-Elysees last October after what the French newspapers described as a drunken brawl with his fellow Racing prop, Viliamu Afatia, Big Ben was arrested by the police who couldn’t find any handcuffs to fit his wrists. Thankfully he came quietly, slept it off in the cells and went home, thanks largely to Afatia, who’d spent the night in hospital and refused to press charges. As I say, allegedly.

The drama, fittingly, all came at the end of the game when Racing, leading 31-30 and with two and half minutes left to play, had a penalty under the Munster posts which the captain, Maxime Machenaud, kicked, thereby adding another ignominious line to the lengthening list of ‘Brainless Decisions Made By French Teams In The Dying Moments of European Pool Matches.’ Even my crumbling arithmetic had worked out that a converted score would’ve not only given Racing a try bonus point, but taken away Munster’s losing bonus point and given the Parisians total control of Pool Four and everything in it. Merde indeed.

This is a tournament that demands many things but more than anything, it’s a test of intelligence. Stupid teams do not win the Champions’ Cup. And if Machenaud hadn’t worked out his numbers, there was plenty of time for the Racing Coaches, Travers and Labit, to get a message on. Clearly, though, they’re both as thick as their skipper. Indeed factor in Teddy Thomas dropping the ball over the try-line in the 16-13 defeat in Castres earlier in the pool stages and Racing seem intent on winning this trophy the hard way. With clear heads and dry hands they’d already have one foot in a home quarter final.

But the real disappointment of a day which, I later learned, drew the biggest crowd of the weekend – 16,155 – was referee, Matt Carley. Matthew had sent off May and Marler in his last two matches and – thus – came into this one on a hat trick. Not only that but no one in the Top14 or the GP14 has had more red cards this season than Racing and Munster respectively – three apiece – so one well-wagered five pound note looked set to pay off the mortgage. As it turned out, of course, Matthew – miserably and I should add, entirely correctly – didn’t even dish out a single yellow. Not for nothing do bookmakers live in red-brick mansions and bald reporters in cardboard boxes.

There was a snarl of traffic outside the stadium as we wended our way to the hotel. Turning left into a tight one-way street, we were – simultaneously and terrifyingly – overtaken by an Audi and undertaken by a Renault. I was still shaking over dinner where K-dog – briefly lifting his nose from his ‘Boeuf au Poivre’ – said he’d heard that insurance companies in France suspend your cover if you’re driving round the Arc de Triomphe. Frankly, how anyone in this city can afford motor insurance is beyond me entirely.

Thus did the discussion move on – the House red was a powerful lubricant – to K-dog’s fear of Paris. ‘What, you’re scared of Paris?’ I snorted. ‘The City of Lights, the Babylon of Love? This is where babies come from. How can you be scared of Paris?’ But then, as K-dog explained – Paris more often than not means Le Stade de France, which in turn means a Eurostar and a Dickensian stroll around Le Gare du Nord or trying to find a back-street parking space in St. Denis that doesn’t have a dead body lying in it. I can see what he means.

This is one of the many reason why I love K-dog. He opens my eyes. Tottering back to the hotel we passed Ferdinand Philippe, Duke of Orleans, not in person, you understand – the bloke died in 1842 – but an imposing statue of him astride his prancing mount in a Neuilly street. ‘Two legs in the air,’ said K-dog, nodding at the horse. ‘Tells you how he died.’ I frowned at him in the dark, obviously a futile gesture but, as I may have mentioned, the wine was plentiful and potent. ‘What, how the horse died?’ I said, puzzled. ‘No, the soldier, the Duke,’ said K-dog. ‘Two horse’s legs in the air means he died in battle and one leg in the air means he died of wounds he got in a battle.’

So we bickered our way to the hotel bar, ordered two Japanese whiskies and looked up the Duke of Orleans. Apparently Ferdinand Philippe was in a carriage trotting regally through Neuilly in 1842 when the horses bolted and he fell out tete-first. I’m not entirely sure this counts as a battlefield death, unless of course, and as K-dog stoically pointed out, he was on his way to a battle at the time. Still, the whiskey was good.

Breakfast on Monday morning was bleary but K-dog – still love that man – gave me a lift to the airport on his way back to the Eurotunnel and his country pile in the Weald of Kent. ‘Are you English?’ said a scabby-looking bloke emerging suddenly from the bustle of Departures at CDG Terminal Bloody Two. ‘It’s just that I’m from Lebanon and I need thirty euros to pay for a ticket to get home to see my dying daughter.’ Being – correctly – picked out from a distance as an Englishman, I have to say I quite like. Being – incorrectly – picked out from a distance as a gullible halfwit, I do not.

It was mid-afternoon on Monday by the time I got home, ‘British Airways’ considerately giving me seats 6A, 6B and 6C and two aspirin on the brief but turbulent flight back to Heathrow. Even now, though, a day later, I seem to smell of garlic and aviation fuel. But Round Five will be one I won’t forget in a hurry. And mercifully there’s three more days to recover before Round Six.

17 JANUARY 2018

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