We meet in the club at 10.30am for the Leeds game the next night. I pick up a few bits and pieces as we always stay in the Meala Golf Club Hotel the night before home games in the Heineken Cup or the French Championship. All the lads are talking, so I ask what is wrong. ‘Qu’est-ce que se passe?’
‘Febien (Pelous). Il est malade.’ Apparently he has a temperature of about 40 dgrees, and I think the normal is about 36 degrees. All the lads start joking that I’ll be in the (second) row against Leeds, and I just laugh and nod my head. I’m rooming with Milo Chosky, a young second-row, who played in the French under-21s last year and this year. He’s the obvious replacement for Fabien.

At 11.30 we watch a video for 30 minutes of a Leeds game against Sale. They look to be a good all-round  side. The lunch is the normal ham salad starter, followed by pasta and pork. Something of a French speciality. All of a sudden Milo jumps and runs to the toilet to get sick. It turns out he has gastro entiritis.

When he comes back I’m full of sympthy for him, and tell him that that’s the end of our room sharing arrangement. So he goes to the manager and pleads for a separate room. He’s given his own room and segregated for the remainder of the day from the rest of the team.

At 4.30 we have a team run at the Stade Deniers. I ask Serge Lairle, our forwards’ coach, if Fabien’s and Milo’s sickness means I’ll be playing in the second row and he says no, that Milo is going to be okay and if Fabien isn’t right then Milo will play in the second row.

Friday 12/12/03

At our 11.00 team meeting Serge tells me I’m in the second-row. I tell him ‘thanks a ******* million.’ All I can think about is the line-out calls. We have a load of new options for this game and that’s why I’d asked him, because I wanted to learn them off. There’s nothing worse than being told on the day of a game that you’re going to be in another position than your normal one.

It gives me something to do though. Match day is a long day, especially when you’re not playing until 7.30 at night. I’m also feeling a bit tired. We arrive at the Stade just before the game and the place looks like it’s buzzing, but the rain is pelting down.
My dad Rory, otherwise known as ‘Six Bottles’, my brother Errol, aka ‘The Duke’, and his girlfriend Ciara had arrived over the day before to watch the match. I’d been in touch with one of the main sponsors to arrange tickets for them in one of the new corporate boxes.

That morning they’d gone into town to do some shopping and the Duke had rung me to tell me that Rory was looking at some cords in a shop and was going mad. He’d been asking for a 42′ waist and a 30′ inch leg but was complaining that they don’t speak English. ‘I’ve been trying to explain to him that he’s in France, but he says ‘no, no, they should be able to speak English’,’ said Errol.

So I ring him myself a few moments later and point out to him ‘you’re in France and how much French do you have?’ So I tell him that I think it’s the same system over here _ quarante deux for the waist and trente for the leg. Anyway, adfter trying on about 20 pairs of trousers he leaves the shop trouserless, and he decides to buy two jumpers instead.

The game is a tough one. We lead 9-0 at half-time through three Frederic Michalak penalties. We find a bit of rythym in the second-half but we still find it hard work breaking them down.

We have three or four try scoring opportunities that we just killed in the very last phase, wither by turning the ball over, knocking it on, or giving away penalties, before Yannick Jauzion scores in injury time for a 16-3 win. It’s a bit disappointing, as we’d targetted our home games as a chance for bonus points but I suppose after losing in Edinburgh the week before, a win is a win. Getting the win, even when playing badly, was the most important thing.

I wouldn’t say it was one of my all-time great games. I just concentrated on the hard graft, tackling, rucking and mauling. I still prefer back-row as my position.

After the match, the artist Phil Browne, who’s always at our matches, had an exhibition in the Killarney bar and a lot of the players went to it. It turned out to be a late night and a great laugh. Myself, the Duke, Six Bottles, who has now changed his name to Two Bottles of Whiskey and coke, and William Servat finished off the night with a whiskey before leaving the Killarney in the early hours of the morning. Everyone is in grand form.

I go out to the car and find that my brother had left two of the car doors open all night and five or six of the neighbourhood cats had made it their home for the night. Believe me it needed a good valeting. I was like a bull with the brother for that.

We have a recovery session at 10.00 in the pool at the Calceo swimming club. On hitting the water I feel like I’ve jumped off the Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead boat. I thought I was going to drown.

That afternoon we headed in to town. Poor old Ciara was not feeling too good so we left her to have a nap in the car while we went for some lunch. When we got back she was still asleep. Later that night the Duke, Rory, and a friend of mine over here from Cork, Dave Hickey, went to the Frog and Roast Beef for a few Saturday night quiet ones.


The headex tablets didn’t work so the father suggested we all go to Lourdes and pray for a miracle to clear our heads. Myself, Rory, The Duke, Ciara, Paula and the two kids head off on the hour-and-a-half trip down the M62. The roads are quiet to Lourdes at this time of year so it’s fairly quick. It’s a good experience for them as none of them had ever been to Lourdes before. I’ve been there about six times now. I feel like Padre Pio at this stage. I must be the holiest Irishman in France.

It was a quiet day, just spent with the family. That evening I dropped them off to the airport and I think they had an early night.

That night Rogere Rooney, in the Killarney, held his annual Christmas dinner for about 30 of his regulars before heading home for Christmas. His wife Marie always cooks up a gorgeous meal. The artist Phil Browne dressed up as Santa Claus. It was the first time I’d ever seen the kids so quiet, but it didn’t last long. Five minutes later they were killing each other for the toys.

Monday 15/12/03

Back to training again. We start off the session with our fitness guy Dominic and it transpires there’ll be no sight of a rugby ball. Instead we’re going to run up and down the steps of the stand all day. One leg hop up the steps, two leg hop up the steps, bounding up the steps, sprinting up the steps. Any way you can think of going up a stairs, we went up it that day.

After every six exercises we stopped for a minimum of a minute. After the third set of six I looked across and saw Frederic Michalak, Clement Poitrenaud and Vincent Clerc all coughing away. I though they were sick but then I realised they each had a fag in their mouth and another on their ears. They’d found a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. They lit them up and were puffing away on them. Believe me, this actually happened. I nearly fell down the stairs I laughed so much. Even Dominic could do nothing but laugh.

That morning I asked Yannick Bru why the French clubs travel so badly in the Heineken Cup. He explained that French teams have a massive discipline problem away from home. He pikced out the example of Agen, who had one red card and two yellow cards in Northampton, the two Biarritz boys who had been suspended the week before away to Leinster, and how we conceded nearly 30 penalties in Edinburgh.

He added that the French players love the comforts of home, knowing the dressing-room, knowing the pitch, knowing the crowd, and playing for the crowd. They’re used to a certain type of hotel and a certain type of food. This was all something that Toulouse had tried to change last year, and we won away to Newport and Eedinburgh aswell as winning a lot of French championship games away from home and then the final in Dublin.

That afternoon we watched a video of the Leeds game. We don’t seem to have clicked as a team yet but I’m sure that when we do someone in is trouble. We’re playing a French Championship game against Grenoble this coming Friday which means we have to make the 600 kilometre trip on Thursday. It’s my first trip to Grenoble as they weren’t in our group last season and the lads say it’s a seven or eight hour journey.
We then play Perpignan on the 30th, a Tuesday, and the following Saturday Biarritz, so we’ve three games packed in over Christmas, which should make a big difference when we resume the Heineken Cup.

Tuesday 16/12/03

Another two hard sessions. We’re putting in the work now. I asked Fabien Pelous if he was feeling better and started slagging him for mising the Leeds match and leaving me in the lurch. He told me that it was the first time in his career that sickness had kept him out of a match in his whole career.
He said that learning the line-out calls and all that wasn’t so important. Mental toughness is what matters ‘and you’ve got that’. It was good to hear that from Fabien, a guy I would have a huge amount of respect for.

Wednesday 17/12/03

I bumped into Yann Delaigue in the room where get our training gear. He showed me a fanmail he had received, from a girl, which included a white g-string with a picture of Clement Poitrenaud on the front, and asking him to get it autographed by Clement. All the boys had a great laugh out of it when he showed it to them in the dressing-room. It was the first time they’d ever seen a request like this.
We had another hard session. That’s five in three days. In the afternoon I finished off a bit of Christmas shopping and today we travel to Grenoble. So I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, especially to family and friends who we won’t be seeing over Christmas this year.