I trained all week with number seven on my back but as we have our day off tomorrow hopefully Guy Noves will have me in the team when he announces it on Friday before the team run. Jean-Michelle Roncoule, one of our scouts, traditionally invites new signings over to his house for dinner in their first season with club and Alfie, Gareth Thomas, asked me to come along. It was a typical French dinner, foie gras to start, followed by duck. A lovely meal.
The custom is to talk about rugby and, Jean-Michelle being a scout, how Stade Toulouse came to sign certain players like Alfie, myself and Vincent Clerc. So he tells the lads the story of how he came to sign me. He came over to watch me play on September 11th, 2001, a date not easily forgotten for all too tragic reasons. Leinster were playing Pontypridd in a Celtic league game that night.
Jean-Michelle actually came over to watch Victor Costello but I had a good game in the second-row and scored a try. He took his notes, went back to Guy Noves and discussed other games that I had played, and so it came to pass that they signed me. Sorry Vic. The climate wouln’t have suited you. It’s no Leitrim. He also explained how he signed Vincent Clerc when he went to watch a centre play for Grenoble but having seen how well Vincent played, rather than take the centre, they took Vincent.
In Gareth’s case, he went to see him play for Wales against the Baabaas. Jean-Michelle arrived a bit late and saw someone being taken off on a stretcher. He asked who it was and he was told that it was Gareth Thomas. The next day he met Gareth in the Vale of Glamorgan, and Alfie arrived on crutches. He told him “no, no, no, we can’t sign an injured player. We
already have Xavier Garbajosa and Benoit Baby injured.”
He needed re-assurance that it wasn’t a long-term injury so over the next two days Gareth had to do every medical test under the sun to show that it was nothing life threatening and he would be able to play for Stade at the start of this season.
The team announcement. I have to say it’s good to be back. Guy Noves picked me at seven, and with Christian Labit rested the back-row is made up of myself, Isitolo Maka at eight and Jean Bouilhou at six. I have to say that the number seven shirt, which is usually measured up for Jean Bouilhou, is a tight fit and I struggled to get into it. With the help of Christian Labit and Isitolo Maka I managed to get it over my head. We watched a video of our game against Northampton and a couple of Northampton’s league matches from a few weeks before, pointing out mistakes they’d made. I pointed out that they’d have done their own video analysis and with a new coaching team probably weren’t going to make the same mistakes. I’m not sure that my comments were appreciated, but there you go.
That night in the hotel we watched the Bourgoin-Leinster game after our meal. The usual banter started off with a few of the lads. Florian Fritz shouts across the table that my old team are going to get beaten tonight. I say not a chance and I’m thinking of giving him a 40 point start for a EUR20 bet but Alfie advised me that it’s going to be a tighter game than that so myself and Florian settle on a straight bet. Bourgoin had obviously targeted this game, like a few French sides last weekend, and in the end Leinster were a little lucky to get only their second win in ten years in France thanks to a bit of Brian O’Driscoll majic.
Florian calls up to my room with the EUR20. I said it was okay but he insisted on paying his debts. It turns out that the match is a near 20,000 sell-out. Northampton brought about 1,500 supporters and I have to admit they were noisy, and at times outshouted the Toulouse supporters. It was another one of those games, like the week before, when we had plenty of try-scoring chances but couldn’t convert them, Northampton making their tackles or managing to slow our ruck ball or kill it.
One thing that has been working very well this season has been our rolling maul which earned us our one try. A lot of our backs aren’t too pleased with this as at certain times they feel they should be getting the ball.
At half-time Guy Noves gives us our normal bollicking but he picks me out for special attention. He tells me that I’m not an out-half and I’m not to be in the slot between numbers nine and ten, because I didn’t have the vision or the skill of a number ten. I’m a catch the ball and straight up type of player. I know he’s only doing his job. All taken on board!
To be honest it was a pretty hard game for myself personally. I’d been two weeks out of action after my knock-out and I found the game physically very tough. There was also a bit of a memory loss. I had forgotten a few of the calls for line-outs and back-row moves etc and I had to keep asking guys to remind me of them during the game.
We still haven’t really clicked but it’s difficult when so many players have been away on international duty. I think we’re a lot like Munster, and like them we’ll hopefully get better.
I managed to watch the first-half of the Munster game in a brasserie in the Stade ground. It looked like quite a close contest in the first-half but I couldn’t get to see the second as I had to do my bit in the sponsor’s tent.
By all accounts the Munster ten came good. The father, aka the Fanatic, had arrived over on Thursday with his brother The Rotweiller, his wife Cillo and her friend Denise. I had picked them up
at the airport, dropped them off at their hotel and left them to their own devices, not to see them again until Saturday night.
They were in great spirits by the time I met up with them. It turns out that Georgie, the Rotweiller, had been sipping wine since ten in the morning at Place Wilson. “Just catching up with a couple of the locals,” as he put it.
That night the squad went for a meal in the St Tropez off Victor Hugo car park. I had booked a table for Paula and the gang although it’s forbidden to bring family or friends to these post-match meals. I was living on the edge. But I had asked the owner to put them out the back in the conservatory with the old gas heaters and with the peasants, while we lived it up in the dining-room. But Paula and Gemma were spotted by some of the players and myself and Alfie got a EUR30 fine.
A nice family day. Toulouse is looking really festive, with Place Capitol done up in lights and Christmas shacks. Alfie has been getting the players to call me Scrooge after I hopped the ball with him by telling him that I had only got Josh and Daniel a box of 50 metal dinkies for EUR9.99 and a selection box of small chocolates for EUR3.99 in a sale. I told him that they’re not very demanding kids and that we’re trying to introduce them to the less commercial and more spiritual side of Christmas!
We have two more games left before Christmas against Auch away and Pau at home, and when we came back to training today Guy Noves was stressing how important these games are in the context of the French championship as when the Six Nations resumes and our internationals will be away, we’ll be playing Perpignan, Stade Francais and Agen away. So these games are massive
and the pressure is back on again.
Alfie has also taken to calling me Chicken Wings, as he reckons I need to bulk up, so twice a week, in addition to the training and the weights we do with the club, himself and myself put in an extra weights’ session. That’s where I’m off to now. But I shouldn’t complain. It’s a good life. We have a week off over Christmas and then we come back to training on January 2nd, to get ready for the resumption of the Heineken Cup. Until then, a bientot.
(In an interview with Gerry Thornley).