Week two of the Heineken Cup had us at home to Glasgow last Friday and we trained hard on the Monday before the game, which would not be the norm. Monday is usually a day of recovery but with the game being on a Friday night our weekly schedule was revised.  We worked hard on lines of running and offloading in the tackle. After the pitch session we did some circuit training with weights followed by a video of our 9-6 win over Llanelli. Not a pretty sight. 

Monday afternoon was free so I decided to go to the Victor Hugo market for lunch. As they say, never judge a book by its cover, but in this case never judge a restaurant by its cover. Sandwiched between a four storey car park and the market at ground level there are four restaurants. One is Le Bouchier, a famous restaurant which serves the best steaks in town, and a must try if in Toulouse, but you’d wonder how anyone would find it.

But they do, it’s popularity coming about purely by word of mouth.  All the produce is served fresh from the market downstairs; all the fish, the vegetables and the meat, which comes from a butcher’s in the market that also belongs to the restaurant owner.  Normally you would have to book but as I’d been promising Alfie, Gareth Thomas, that I’d take him there, so we have a 30 minute wait. But while we’re waiting, Philippe, the owner who is a fanatical Stade Toulouse fan as you can easily see by the array of scarves and photos scattered all around the restaurant, treats us to an aperitif and some foie gras.  When we eventually sit down we are treated to entrecote steaks covered with foie gras which melts into the steaks. Absolutely fantastic.

His wife Gemma, his brother Dickie and girlfriend Claire, are all very happy. As the aperitifs had come good and strong, along with a free bottle of wine and one we bought ourselves during the meal, the girls are pretty sozzled by the end of it. They were going to take full advantage of their shopping trip and the visa cards were going to get a good burning!  On Tuesday we have two big sessions. I’m in the back-row for both of them. In the morning we do line-outs, scrums and work on the opposition. In the late afternoon session, which runs from about 5.00 to 7.30, we do more opposed work, team runs, circuit training and weights after that. We basically crammed everything into those two sessions. That evening I had physio for a knock I got on the knee and got home at about 9.00. I was too tired to eat, too tired to talk; just vegetate on the couch and go to bed. I’m sure every sportsperson goes through one of these days. Your wife wants you to talk, but you can’t. 

When the team is announced on Wednesday morning it turns out I’m in the row with Gregory Lamboulet. “So much for yesterday.” Fred Michalak is captain as Fabien Pelous and Yannick Bru are on the bench which had a total of 264 caps: Pelous (93), Thomas (77), Emile Ntamack (46), Yannick Jauzion (19), Yannick Bru (18) and Jean-Baptiste Poux (11), while David Gerard has loads of experience as well as playing for France A. Not bad, not bad at all.  Ntamack came out of retirement to sit on the bench this week.

Just to think of what this guy has achieved…a humble and yet inspirational player. Forty-six caps for France, two European Cups, six French championships and still looking for more. He’s still very much involved in the club, having taken over the training of the Espoirs with another former player, Didier Lacoix.  I remember saying to him when the team was announced that it was great to have him back and I was looking forward to playing alongside him again. He turned, smiled and said to me “thanks Irish, that means a lot.” 

Thursday’s team run went well under beautiful blue Toulouse skies but when I woke up on Friday morning and looked out the window I thought somebody had moved the location during the night back to Wales. The rain was coming down heavily and the winds blowing under grey, grey skies.  We arrived at the club an hour and 15 minutes before the game. You could sense the difference for our first home European game compared to top 16 matches. There were 14-15,000 supporters for this game and there was quite a buzz around the ground. A lot of cheers getting off the bus. Head down and go into the dressing-room. 

This was a big night for Christian Labit as he was winning his 50th European Cup cap. The first had been against Leinster in Donnybrook in 1997. Ironically it was my European Cup debut too. I think I might have got sinbinned, and I did get Man of the Match, and people still talk about my big hit on their outhalf, Christophe Deylaud, and my big fight Sylvain Dispagne. Unfortunately I haven’t racked up 50.  He’s a great character, the most laid-back, easy-going guy you could meet. Loves his shooting and his fishing. Any spare time at all he puts on the waders and his fishing gear. He always brings his dog to training with him. He arrived to training only a couple of weeks ago, opened the boot and out jumped the dog. That was a Monday and he said the dog had been there since Friday. He had forgotten he had been there all weekend.  Every now and again the black starts to come through the hair, and then he’ll turn up one day with the hair purple. He does the hair himself and it goes through three phases, purple, blond and then blonder.

The fans love him.  He seemed to really step it up for this match. The lights went off in the dressing-room when wecame back from our warm-up and Christian took us back into the medical room. Don’t ask me everything he said, because he was speaking so fast, but he really fired the guys up. Screaming his head off, you knew it was big for him.  Anybody who tried to come into the medical room, he told them to get lost. He just took over, and said enough talk, he was the only one who was going to talk now. Everybody else was to do their talking on the pitch. We were 31-0 up with four tries in the back by the 35th minute. It was nice to get the first one myself. Fell over the line really. It was like getting struck by lightening. It doesn’t happen very often to me. 

We were sh*te last week (against Llanelli) and Glasgow aren’t a bad side, but we just stepped it up, although even in training yesterday the coach still wasn’t happy, talking about missed tackles and taking the foot off the gear.  Guy Noves had told us that if we won we could have last Monday, a bank holiday, off, but if we didn’t he’d see us for training at 10.00am. So as most of the lads had already made plans for a rare extended weekend off, it was clever psychology.  We had a big night in the De Danu with the Glasgow team in. All hands on deck. We have a great team in the bar. Three French fellas, Arnaud, Christophe and Xavier, and our Irish contingent, Mick Clancy, from Salthill in Galway, Clare Monigle from Letterkenny, and Elaine from Mayo; all over here for a year’s study and delighted to be working in the bar.  Mick’s studying law, though you’d never think it by the head on him.

Mick’s one of these happy-go-lucky types, always smiling, always in good form. He’s already learnt a good bit of French and is very good with the ladies, and not studying very hard by the looks of things. Clare from Letterkenny comes in and does the breakfast at the weekends, as well as pulling pints, cleaning the glasses. It’s great to have that mix of Irish and French.  Most of Saturday was spent in Toulouse, testing some of the French food and vin rouge with two friends from Ireland, Nirvard Whelan and his wife Hazel. We headed off in the afternoon to Alby, with its famous basilica, and cobblelock streets which runs throughout this beautiful town and its lovely walks along the Garon river. 

After dinner there we stopped off in an Irish bar called O’Sullivans which is managed by Kevin Shields for a Frenchman called Luke. As the designated driver I just had to watch again. Between being a professional rugby player, owning a pub, being the driver or just the host, I watch an awful lot more drinking than I actually take part in. It’s ridiculous.  Halloween isn’t the same over here. They don’t do the door-to-door thing. Kids get dressed up and go to Halloween parties. No fireworks, no bonfires, just the rain.

When I was younger we started collecting for the bonfire about a month before Halloween; tyres, wood, beds. Anything that burned, we collected it.  The estate with the biggest bonfire was the best and if the other estates found out where your stash was you’d lose it. This always caused a few rows which I always seemed to get involved in. And there was always the annual trip to Moore Street for fireworks.  “Apples and bananas, six for 50!” a voice would shout, before changing tone and saying “do you want some fireworks son?”  “Of course love.”  I’d planned to head to Andorra with Alfie this weekend but the row between the Welsh RFU and Toulouse was resolved and the club have agreed to release him for their game against South Africa this weekend.  We have four championship games in a row now, beginning with a big one for the club against the champions Stade Francais. Last season they beat us home and away and two years ago they beat us in the final. I’m sure it will be a sell-out, and we owe them one.

An interview with Gerry Thornley.