It’s been four weeks since the semi-final against Biarritz and we’ve hardly paused for breath since. On the Wednesday after that semi-final we played Perpignan away and the coach decided to rest everyone bar David Gerard and Isitolo Maka, who hadn’t had so many matches.
Otherwise he played our ‘espoiy’ or B team. We could afford to lose this game as we had already qualified for the next play-off stages of the French Championship. We still had another match against Biarritz the following Saturday to decide whether we finished first or second in our group.
Most of the senior players who weren’t picked to play against Perpignan decided to go up and support the team. After lunch myself, Benoit Lecouls and William Servat hit the road for Perpignan.
We stopped at a little fishing village outside Perpignan and tucked into some oysters and an assortment of shell fish. The match was at 6.30 and everybody was impressed with the performance of the espoiys. Down 16-3 at half-time, they lost 35-10 against a full-strength Perpignan side. It was good to see some young players for the future coming through so well.
On the following Saturday we had a full-strength squad again and beat Biarritz 36-30, which meant we finished top of our group. There was, of course, a bit of an edge to it, but home advantage stood to us. The draw for the play-offs was made later that evening. We got Brive, Stade Francais and Biarritz again. I suppose it just doesn’t get any harder than that. In the other pool Perpignan are hitting a bit of form and look to be favourites ahead of Castres, Beziers and Pau, as they’ve already beaten Castres away.
I feel like a tour guide as much as a professional rugby player lately. The former Greystones player John Murphy, who is a Leinster co-ordinator, gave me a call to see if I could arrange a tour of the Stade and the Toulouse shop for the Irish under-18s, who came over to play the French under-18s, and lost on the same day we played Biarritz. The lads seemed to be pretty happy with a 30% discount at the store, as I’ve never seen the shirts and jerseys come of the racks so quickly.
Before the next game away to Brive I got a call from Margaret Kent, from Waterfall in Co Cork. She’s a liason officer for the Irish women’s rugby team and asked if I could organise a tour of the Stade, a visit to the State Toulouse shop and to the Calicio complex where we use the swimming pool.
On the Thursday before the Brive game I took them on a tour of the Stade, had a great chat with Rosie Foley and organised another trip to the club shop. They had orders from loads of Munster supporters who had tickets for the Heineken Cup final but didn’t sell them on, to buy Toulouse shirts to support us. It was great to here that but when I saw her buying a 2XL shirt I asked her who it was for. Her father, she told me. I said: ‘You’ll do well to get him into that,’ as he’s such a die hard Munster fan. I want a picture of that.
They lost their first match to Wales but beat Italy and Spain to finish fifth in Europe _ not a bad result for an amateur outfit. They were playing one of their games near my home vilage of Aucanville while we were in Brive, and I got a text from Rosie that they’d won the game against Spain and suggesting that we’d all meet up for a drink in Toulouse later that night with the team.
It was the first time I’d played Brive in my two years here and it was probably the most physical game I’ve played up front _ scrums, line-outs, mauls, in the tackle _ since I arrived here. It was 9-6 at half-time and in the end we won 29-9.
Eamonn Leech, a friend of mine who played under-age rugby in Barnhall, and his wife Helen travelled to that game with two friends of mine and Paula. After the match we had two drinks and hit the road. Helen hadn’t been too well before the game. It turned out she had a touch of gastro entiritis. We had passed the team bus but ten minutes up the road we had to make an emergency stop. Let’s just say the match tickets came in very handy.
So it went on, us overtaking the bus 15 minutes up the road, and again 20 minutes later we pulled in and they overtook us. The lads must have been wondering what was going on with Trevor.
That night when we got back to Toulouse we headed in to town to a lovely Japanese restaurant called Chez Moi and then on to the Killarney where we met up with the Irish girls. There seemed to be a good mood in the place and some of the girls looked a little worse for wear. I ended up doing line-outs in the middle of the bar with Rosie Foley, lifting Margaret Kent, and we had a great sing-song.
Last weekend was the Stade Francais match at home. They hadn’t been expected to make the play-offs but won their last few games and qualified on points difference. All the talk beforehand was of last year’s final, when we lost to them. From early in the week there were no seats to be got in the Stade. I’d taken a knock against Brive and was on the bench until the last 20.
On the morning of match day we arrived in the Stade and it seemed like there were about 18,000 Toulouse fans to 1,000 Stade Francais supporters. The atmopshere was electric. It was 9-all at half-time; a very physical game up front. But Stade Francais seemed to be the better team. We were close to their line three times near the end and could have won but Stade Francais held on to win 22-16. It wasn’t the best preparation for a European Cup final.
Everyone was bitterly disappointed because it was a game we had targetted. To qualify for the semi-finals by finishing in the top two of your pool, you need to win your home games and one away game. Although we have beaten Brive away, this setback means we probably have to beat Stade Francais away or beat Biarritz home and away, and after the Heineken Cup final next Sunday we play Biarritz away the following Wednesday and then at home the following Sunday.
We’ve been punished again for our European run. We’ve just got to try and target both games but coming within seven days of our European Cup final it’s going to be a tall order. As for Stade Francais, all their big players are back and Nick Mallett really has them well organised. Their defence was superb against us. I’d say they were 40% better than they were when they played Miunster in the Heineken quarter-finals. They played against us for the whole 80 minutes like they did for the last ten or 20 against Munster.
It was our first home defeat in my two years here. We didn’t get hammered, and we could have won, but it’s going to be tough now against Wasps. We don’t know who’ll be playing. I don’t know if I’ll be able to start. Fretddy Michalak is still carrying a knock and can’t train fully, so has Yann Delaigue, while Jean-Baptiste Elissalde is only just back training.
On Monday we went through the video of our game against Stade Francais. We turned over the ball 26 times, taking in two scrums against then head, line-outs and knock-ons. Tuesday was the first time we watched Wasps this year, when we watched a video of the Munster match. Yesterday we watched their impressive win over Northampton.
The coach is just gradually building them up. They have a great team from one to 22, and by the end of the week we’ll know what Wasps have for breakfast, lunch, dinner and tea; as no doubt they will about us. We know they’re the favourites. Over here our tv and media make them clear favourites. They are the in-form team in England and Europe.
They’ve a big pack. They work well as a unit in defence and attack. When they get the ball their backs change angles and have great lines of running. They’ve a real rugby league-influenced defence; four up and they don’t committ many to rucks, and they always have their back-row out amongst their backs.
It will be like playing on a home track for Wasps, but if everyone is fit and up for it then, even though Wasps are a fine side, I can’t see them running away with the game. We’re looking forward to it, and if I was a betting man I’d keep my money in my pocket.
PS: Thanks to Alan Gaffney and the boys for being the first to send over an autographed jersey for my new bar, the De Danu.