After a hard weekend of Heineken Cup quarter-finals, the three French sides, Toulouse, Biarritz and Stade Francais, returned to the Top 16 to face hard away games. All three lost, Biarritz at Narbonne, Stade Francais away to Castres and ourselves away to Bourgoin, the table toppers. Obviously the three European games had taken their toll. 

It was my first trip to Bourgoin in my time here as I missed our game there two years ago due to injury. We faced a seven hour journey by coach to Bourgoin on the Friday, with two 20 minute stops to stretch our legs and grab a snack. On the Saturday morning I woke up to rain and snow. With a strong wind blowing into us in the first half, we reached half-time only 9-6 down and playing with the wind in the second-half we were pretty confident we could take the game to them.

About ten minutes into the second half the coach brought on Fabien Pelous to replace David Gerard. Almost immediately, they stole a line-out of ours in their half, and began mauling us up the  pitch. We managed to bring it down after about 20 metres.  But when it broke up there were bodies scattered everywhere. Our physio came on to the pitch and didn’t know which way to turn or who to go to. Fabien had taken a knock on the knee, so too had Gregory Lamboley, and Jean Bouilhou had sustained a cut. It was ridiculous. 

All three had to leave the pitch for treatment and we haven’t seen Pelous or Bouilhou since. Fabien is definitely out of the Leicester match this weekend and it’s not clear whether Bouilhou will play or not.

After that Bourgoin scored a try off a quick penalty and suddenly it was 16-6 and we were down to 14 men.  It was a long second-half, finishing up 26-6, and that made the return trip seem even longer. We stopped off after three hours in an old country house for dinner and to celebrate the anniversaire of Christophe Foucau, one of our physios. It helped us forget about our defeat, our injuries and the drive home, but when we got back onto the bus we realised we still had four hours ahead of us. Getting home at 5am, I
felt the worse for wear.

The next day Daniel had his first judo championships in the village next to us, St Alban. Myself, Paula and Josh went along to it and it was great to see all the different teams of kids and how professionally it was run. Danny is only six-and-a-half but because of his size he was put in with nine and ten-year-olds. He’s tall for his age, and weighs 55kgs. A future Irish prop. “I’m the second Califano,” he says.

He had to compete with one eye closed because he had been fighting with the brother a few days before and still had washing up liquid in his eye. But he won a gold and a bronze. Not bad for his first competition.
We went to celebrate at a restaurant in town called Carpaccio, where the owner treated danny to his meal along with ice cream for himself and his brother. I had a great night’s sleep that night.

The following Monday was the day of the Lions’ announcement. The kids and Paula wished me the best as I headed off to the club. But 11.00 came and went with no text message. Then about 20 minutes later Alfie (Gareth Thomas) appeared in the gym and said to me “sorry horse.” I felt like shite but put on my best face. I congratulated him and said I was always an outside chance anyway.

My wife and his wife, Gemma, had been watching Sky Sports at their house so I told Alf to go home as he had an interview to do with them and that I’d follow him up after getting some lunch. I managed to eat something but when I got to his house he was still giving the interview.

Paula told me that Alf didn’t really want to celebrate because I hadn’t made the squad as well, but I said to hell with that. I went to the fridge, got out a bottle of champagne and while he was still giving the interview I shook the bottle, opened it, and sprayed it over him,
shouting “Alfie for the Lions.”
The cameraman looked a bit stunned. Some of it had sprayed over him as well. Alfie started saying “You effin’ mad Irishman.” After that I went to the fridge and opened another bottle to raise a glass to Alf. Then weboth headed to the bar for lunch. What was on the big screens only Sky Sports.

And what were they talking about? Only the Lions’ selection. I had to put on a brave face for Alfie although it was killing me inside.But like everybody in rugby you have to learn to accept rejection sometimes. You have to take the good with the bad. Come 5.00 I began to realise that life goes on.

By the time I got home, the two boys were out playing soccer with their mates. Both wanted me on their team and even though the ages ranged from three to seven, it was good to feel wanted again by some team. In any case, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all the Irish Lions well. As Willie John McBride said: “99 lads”. And for those who don’t know much about rugby, he wasn’t talking about ice creams when he shouted that on the 1974 tour.
That Monday morning Guy Noves had gone through the tape of the Bourgoin match and left us in little doubt that he was very disappointed with the way we had played. For the rest of the week everyone was barred from mentioning the Heineken Cup. Montferrand was to be the only match on our minds. Still in third place, we weren’t just looking for a win, but the bonus point as well.
Myself and Romain Millo-Chlusky were in the second-row and both the Maka brothers were playing. Isitolo hadn’t played for a few weeks as they club had been getting on to him about his weight. Lamboley had done very well at eight while Isitolo was put on a diet and under orders to lose ten kgs before he played again.
He’s come back in great shape and in great form. He carries the ball brilliantly for us and makes big tackles. Playing alongside the Maka brothers when they’re on song like this is a huge lift for the team. We won 30-10 and with Stade Francais and Biarritz also winning at home, and Bourgoin losing away to Agen, the top four has changed much over the last two weeks.
So now we can focus on the Leicester game this Sunday. It doesn’t get much bigger than a meeting between two two-time winners of the Heineken Cup in the semi-finals. We’ll train on Thursday, rest on Friday and travel over on Saturday. We’re looking forward to a very, very physical encounter.
Our coach watched the Saracens-Leicester match and told us how physical it was. I watched it myself and I’d have to agree. They’ll have all the support in the Walkers Stadium as well. It’s a huge game for oursupporters and our club, but I’d say we’ll hardly fill a plane with our
supporters. That’s just the way it is in France. We don’t have anything like the travelling support of, say, Munster.
It costs EUR350 for a day trip and few people are prepared to spend EUR500 or so for a day trip to a match. The drummers and fanatics will find a way of going by bus, boat and bus again. They’ll spend about two days travelling for the match.

 It’s probably better for Leicester to be going into the game on the back of their defeat to Saracens. We have our injury problems as well
but having Isitolo Maka back in the shape he’s in makes up in some ways for losing Fabien, and Gareth Thomas has been given the all-clear afterrecovering from the broken hand he suffered playing for Wales against France in the Six Nations.
 It’s going to be tough but then again you wouldn’t expect anything less in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup.

(An interview with Gerry Thornley).