THE SEMI-FINAL COUNTDOWN

We met up on Tuesday for a light session and this was followed by a weights’ session wich turned into a bit of an exhibition by the Maka brothers. It was was one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen.


As we were doing some bench presses, the two boys started loading up. Everyone else was warming up with 100 kilos, but the lads were warming up on 160 – real heavy stuff. The lads then started adding on 20 kilos. Finau settled for 180 kils but Izzy (Isitolo) – to the amazement of everyone in the gym – bench pressed 200 kilos.


I can only lift 130 kilos, max, but when you think that Izzy’s own body weight  is 120kilos, lifting 200 is quite amazing. Needless to say, it was the talk of of the club for the rest of the afternoon.


 


SUPERSTITION AND LUCKY CHARMS


Our physical preparation coach, Traore Zeba, started handing out lucky charms as he did at around the same stage last year. After training he handed around a bag containing around 40 bronze masks, about the size of a key ring, and 40 bracelets.


 As you pulled out the bronze mask from the bag you had to say a little prayer, effectively you were asking the mask to grant you a wish. The bracelet was made of three colours: bronze, gold and silver. Bronze represents the earth, gold represents fire, and silver represents the air.


 His father is the Minister of Spurt in Burkeno Faso, and his village of about 30,000 people is called Teukogo. Traore ran in the 100 metres in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and does the physical preparation for ourselves and the French olympic athletes based in Toulouse.


 Last year he gave everyone a lucky charm with a bone in it. It’s like witch doctor stuff. You have to laugh. Each year around about this time some of the lads start appearing with salt in their socks, or lucky underpants that look like they were fit for the bin five years ago.


They still douse the touchlines and goal-lines with holy water before finals but being here has probably made me a more superstitious person, and I still have the wishbone from last year myself, aswell as other good luck charms.


 


BOUND FOR BORDEAUX


We met up in the club for the three hour bus trip to Bordeaux. A French friend of mine dropped me off and took my car for the weekend as along with another fella he was meeting my family and friends at the airport and looking after them for the weekend.


About an hour into the bus trip we started to slow down with engine trouble and had to pull in to the side of the motorway. When it got going again one of the lads shouted out ‘Merci, Zeba,’ and held up one of the masks.


On arrival at a Mercure Hotel, we had another video session which lasted about an hour, on various plays Biarritz do from line-outs, from mauls, from scrums etc. After that we had a one our walk to stretch the legs.


I was rooming with a young second-rower called Milo Chosky. He’s a good laugh. We watched a bit of pay tv, a movie called Bad Boys 2.


On Friday morning we had yet another video session. At this stage the lads are starting to moan a bit. If feels like we’ve wathed every game Biarrtitz have played and every move they’s done for the last five years. Serge Lairle, our forwards’ coach, loves the whole video analysis.


At 2.45 we had a run at the stadium, the Chaban Delmas. Guy Noves gives us a talk on the pitch before the session, which lasts about 20 minutes. He confirms the starting line-up, although you could have guessed it from the Tuesday in training. It’s clear his nerves about this match are starting to show.


 


D-DAY, AS THEY SAY


I went down for breakfast at about 9.00. orange juice, a bit of bread and jam, and a coffee. That’s all you get in France, which is why I always tuck in at breakfast time whenever I’m back in Ireland.


 I went to the physio for a bit of a rub down, and Williams Servat is getting treatment. It’s still touch and go for him  but it could be worse, we have the French number two (Yanick Bru) on standby. It’s clearly going to be very hot so I start getting plenty of fluids on board.


 We had a stretch at about 11.00 out in the car park. Fred doesn’t look too good. He’s surrounded by the two coaches and Guy Noves. He’s practically in tears and you can see that his ankle has acted up overnight. Guy Noves comes over to the pack and tells us to make Freddie’s job a little easier, to make sure he gets good quality ball and to protect him. How long he would last, we didn’t know.


We headed back to the hotel and lieing in bed I just start thinking of previous matches that I’ve played in. Big games that we’ve won, and big games that we’ve lost. Some games you just can’t forget, like Ireland’s defeat to France at Lansdowne Road in 1999 when we lost by a point to a late kick. That was cruel.


Like the defeat away to Beziers in the French Championship this year, when I gave away a penalty for offside at a ruck to concede a last-ditch penalty and we lost 17-16. After games like that you don’t need to be told you messed up. Some of the defeats stay with you forever. The ones you win are great, but it’s job done and you move on. With the defeats you’re left thinking, ‘if I hadn’t this’ or ‘if I hadn’t done that’.


 All week the coaches had been stressing the importance of discipline, that penalties will win or lose this game. Lieing in bed, I think to myself that whatever happens I don’t want to be the person who loses it for the team.


 In the dressing-room before the match Guy Noves speaks to everyone individually. When he pulls me aside he starts pushying me, and pulling my jersey, and then starts punching me in the chest.


 ‘if they start pushing you, don’t react. If they start pulling you, don’t react. If they start punching you, don’t react. Trevor Brennan, il est mort aujuourd’hui.’ In other words I would lie on the ground rather than react.


 We won the match. It was very tough, very physical, and we were lucky that Yachvili wasn’t kicking well. I think our defence won it for us, and our discipline. I was happy, after all I’d been thinking about, to make plenty of tackles for a second-row and to have a zero penalty count against my name.


After the match I went back in a convoy with family and friends rather than go back on the team bus. It was great so see so many cars with Toulouse sticks and flags waving. We stopped at a petrol station where a couple of hundred supporters. People were chanting Allez les Stade, mobbing me and then surrounding the car.


The pure fanaticism of the supporters was something I had never experienced before, and in a way it sticks in the head more than the match.


Twelve of us went out for a meal that night on one floor above a disco with live music called El Teatro. At about 2.00 we were about to leave when some fella, a supporter who owns another nite club, sent over four bottles of champagne. Again, the family couldn’t get over the generosity. So, needless to say, we stayed just a little bit longer. It was just the little push we needed.


 


WAITING FOR MUNSTER OR WASPS


We headed down to The Melting Pot to watch the Munster game. I have to say that it was one of the best games of rugby I saw this year, last year, or any year. I think Munster probably did everything they possibly could. I genuinely felt for the Munster lads, just being there so many times, even though it’s probably harder to play against Munster than any other team. Last season’s semi-final was one of the hardest games I’ve ever played in.


Wasps are the in-form team in Europe and everything has to be upped in training from now on if we are to have any chance in the final. All the talk at training on Monday was that ‘Wasps’ are a good side and it will be difficult. They can’t seem to pronounce the middle ‘s’ in Wasps.


Last night a few of us drove to Perpignan, where most of the team is being rested before playing Biarritz at home again next Sunday, and it’ll give me the chance to hook up with Mick O’Driscoll for the night as we’ve no training today. Then it will be back to business.


The family and friends are long gone home now but it was a great weekend. I’d like to thank them for the memories.