Last year’s Heineken Cup final seems a lifetime away. After that we did the double over Biarritz inside the next six days, home and away, to get to the play-offs but lost to Perpignan by two points in the semi-finals. Losing these big games still hurts. You play rugby to win things, not lose them. And it’s not as if it’s easy getting to the final of a European Cup.
In the last two years that I’ve been here we’ve made two European Cup finals, one French Championship final and one semi-final, but we’ve won only won of them. A lot of people would see that as a very successful two years but at the end of the day you remember losing finals as much as winning them.
Losing last year’s final to Wasps, in the circumstances that we lost, is still hard to come to terms with. Talking to people in the weeks afterwards, many of them said it was possibly the best of the Heineken Cup finals, and certainly had the best rugby. Even Warren Gatland said later that possibly the better team on the day lost, but in saying all of that I still haven’t been able to bring myself around to watching a tape of the match, and I’m not sure I ever will. It’s gathering dust somewhere. It was a sick feeling, and one of those sick feelings that stays with you as I’m not one to let these things go. I thought of many things, ‘what if there had been extra time?’ I thought to myself ‘well done Gats’ but I couldn’t bring myself around to meeting up with the man after the game to shake his hand.
I suppose that’s one of those things that rankles with me as well, but that’s sport. After the end of last season I needed a good long break and we headed off to Argles for two weeks. It’s about 40 minutes from Perpignan on the coast and did the whole camping thing for the first time in my life, and also headed down to Barcelona and a place called Port Locate for a week, myself, Paula, the two boys, Paula’s sister Mary, her husband John and their three boys. I haven’t been home since last November but my reason for staying here this year was simply because people pay a fortune coming to France on holidays and when I go home it’s not really like a holiday as such.
You’re staying with someone else as your own house is rented out. In France you have the weather, you have the pool, you have the beaches, you have the facilities, you have everything within two hours drive of Toulouse. You just have great choice and children are treated well. It was a typical family holiday, not going too mad. Just unwound with the kids, spent most of the days by the pool, then at night time headed down for something to eat together. I wouldn’t say all the kids got on too well together, more like cats and dogs. They were killing each other. I thought we had a bit of a wild son but Mary has an even wilder one. Ten times worse. Coming down slides into pool, backwards, on the knees, anyway you can think of. Made my two lads look like angels. I also had an operation on an elbow problem which had been giving me trouble for a few months, so I spent my four weeks’ holidays doing a lot of rehabbing, running and cycling. We also bought a bar in town, myself and Paula, and a chap from Cork, David Hickey, and his girlfriend Colette Buckley, who spends most of her time in there. Paula works there, Gareth Thomas’ wife is working there, an Irish student as well, so we’re very lucky that we’ve got a good crew working there.
I spent most of the summer doing the demolition on that myself. The building was about 100 years old and the part where the bar was hadn’t been touched in about 50 years. Everything had to be stripped back to a skeleton, to bring the old brick back and the old ceiling back, and then work from there again. It had been owned for ten years by the former Toulouse hooker Patrick Sousa, when it was a café. It’s prime location, downtown, pretty central, right beside the Opera House, five minutes walk from Place Wilson, 15 minutes walk from Place Capital, surrounded by other bars, hotels and restaurants. We haven’t got up and running with the lunches yet but we will. We opened on September 23rd, the day before the Biarritz game, and we’ve been absolutely flying. It’s called De Danu (fada on the u) after an Irish goddess of the people, a folklore hero whose name we found in a children’s book. We went all out. We said that if we were going to do an Irish bar, we’d do it right. So we found the Irish Pub Company, and they brought a designer over and he measured everything down to the last square inch, told us what to do to get the place ready and then they arrived over with two truckloads of nick-nacks _ wood, doors, window displays and the rest _ and they walked away with the bar finished.
There’s a shop at the front and one of the bars is decorated with all the jerseys I’ve saved over the years. For the second bar I was very lucky that Eric Elwood, Mark McCall and Allen Clarke in Ulster, Ken Ging in Leinster and Alan Gaffney in Munster got me each of the provincial jerseys autographed for one wall, and Shane Byrne organised a jersey from all the boys when they won the Triple Crown. Billy Stickland, from Inpho, gave me a load of photographs from all Irish sports; Stephen Kelly and Sean Roche, gaelic photos, Packie Bonners’ save in Genoa, so it’s a typical sports section with high tables and plasma screens and then in the third section we have a pull down big screen. We also got the Sky Digital over from Ireland, Sky+ from Italy and Canal+ in France. We’ve really tapped into a sports market, which no other bar in Toulouse does. I’d say 80% of our customers are English-speaking. I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a lover of the English, but I love them now.
It’ll be another long road to the final in Murrayfield this season for whoever gets there, and we’ve already had a quite a season so far, playing three friendlies and ten league games. As well as making it one pool of 16 teams, they’ve introduced a bonus points system of three points for a win, two for a draw, one for losing by seven or less and one for scoring four or more tries. We’ve been up and down, losing three out of our first three games. Four weeks ago we found ourselves in seventh position going into a big game at home to Biarritz. After winning the game by a single point we found ourselves eighth in the table the next day. Last weekend we were second in the table going into the game against Clermont Auvergne, who used to be Montferrand. We lost the game, but picked up a point and find out the next day we’re top of the table because all the top four teams lost their games. Going into the Llanelli game last night, personally I don’t think we’ve been playing too well. We beat Biarritz when Cedric Heymans kicked a 60 metre penalty. They’ve bought big and it was an absolutely cracking game. We should never have won that game, but sure we’ll take them when they come. And we’re top of the table, so we must be doing something right.
An interview with Gerry Thornley