Where do I start? It’s been two months since the last column. If I was to write everything that’s happened since then I could fill a book. Since we beat Llanelli in our last Heineken Cup pool game at home, we’ve played seven championship games, winning four at home and losing three narrowly away.
Classic French form, I suppose you could say.
In our most recent game, at home to Brive last Friday, we won 71-3. We produced some of the best rugby we’ve played all season. Before the game the club had a massive parade to celebrate Fabien Pelous winning his 100th cap during the Six Nations and it was like everyone lifted their game to commemorate his achievement.
During yesterday’s video session Guy Noves said it was great for him as a coach to see a Toulouse team play well for two halves and not just one. Five tries scored in each half and an influx of all subs, including myself at half-time, in the second-half.
Freddy Michalak is so on form it’s ridiculous. It’s mad. Well, I think so anyway. He finds gaps that just aren’t there. Great feet. He’s running flat out and he can stop, throw a dummy, then sprint again and just leave defences standing there. Hopefully he can produce it again tomorrow night.
During the Six Nations we had just two weeks off although I didn’t play against Biarritz due to a calf strain I had picked up in training. After that game I met up with Gareth Thomas, who’d driven down to the game with his wife Gemma.
He had just returned from Wales, where he’d had an operation on his thumb, which he’d fractured in five places against France the week before. After the match we went into the dressing-room to see the lads and say hard luck.
It was the first time the lads had seen Alfie since Wales’ incredible comeback a week earlier, when he’d left the pitch and gone straight to hospital without attending the post-match dinner.
The slagging broke the dull atmosphere which you usually have in a dressing-room after a defeat. Fabien called him a few names for beating France in Paris and Alfie responded by saying “the game last for 80 minutes boys” and “Wales for the Grand Slam.”
I drove Gareth’s car back to Toulouse rather than return with the squad as I had an early start for a week back in Ireland the next morning. It was all go the minute I got off the plane. I was picked up by The Fanatic, my friend Alan and his father and we headed off to Armagh.
I had given a Toulouse jersey to Al’s cousin, Dessie Graham, who is involved in the Alzeihmer’s Society. The jersey was being auctioned off in the Armagh Pigeon Club, which Dessie is president of and which groundshares with Armagh Rugby Club.
The rugby club got wind of this and decided to jump on the bandwagon for an auction and raffle that night. After a lovely day we headed to the clubhouse for this function. Perhaps people don’t go out in Belfast on Sunday nights, or maybe it was because Trevor Brennan was there, but about ten people turned up, most of them being first-team players from Armagh rugby club. A bash for my ego. A great night was had despite the poor turn-out.
Back in Dublin the next day at lunchtime, the mother had the bacon and cabbage ready. Great. I spent the next few days meeting family and friends I hadn’t seen in over a year, and met up with Ken Ging for lunch in Kiely’s on Wednesday. We exchanged a few jokes and had a few laughs, and it was great to see all the Leinster lads again.
The Thursday brought most of the French supporters to Ireland, ten of whom I had a rendezvous with that day. This weekend it was My Dublin (sorry Ronnie Drew). I was very proud bringing my French friends around my capital city, showing them the spike, walking over O’Connell Bridge, and you know what they say about this Fair City, and the girls being so pretty (being married, I was only looking). The language barrier for my French friends did not hold a huge barrier. In fact I would say it was to their advantage.
The highlights of my guided tour were to the Guinness Hop Store on the Thursday and the Whiskey Corner on the Friday. En route to the Hop Store, we passed Christchurch and the liberty market, and as we were passing Meath Street I met a few familiar faces and stopped to chat to a few people on the stalls who I once sold packaging to.
We ended the tour on the top floor of the Hop Store to sample our free pints of Guinness. Thanks Mary from Campbells for the tickets! With the views and the Guinness, we stayed longer than we should have. We ended that night listening to some trad music in a pub in Temple Bar, which was heaving with about 80% French people. A sing-song started, with Basque songs and la Marseillaise, followed.
On the Friday I had an interview with TV3 on the Donnybrook pitch, finishing it off in Kielys where I met mes amis francais, who were being plied with coffee and sandwiches to start them up for a new day. Pat asked me if I wanted to have lunch in the Jameson’s Irish Whiskey Corner. I said I had passes already organised through my sister-in-law Jacinta but Pat made the call to the manager Philippe anyway, whose company Rickard have bought over Jameson’s Irish Whiskey.
So after the tour and some whiskey tasting, we sat down for lunch, 11 of us at one table and about 35 French people from Rickards at another table.
Smoked salmon followed by Irish stew, and great hospitality. That evening I met up with some old friends, Victor Costello, Shane Horgan and Gordon D’Arcy, and we all mixed well. It was proving a tough old weekend.
John Baker, the man responsible for me signing with Toulouse, had some breakfast speaking engagements for me in return for two West Stand tickets.
It was a great buzz, meeting up with stewards from my days playing with Ireland, hearing shouts from some old friends like Del Boy and Robbie Lyons from Mary’s, and meeting up with some of the French players.
Well, Ireland lost and the rest is history. After the game I had a Q & A with Des Cahill in the old Lansdowne pavilion for Permanent TSB. I’d asked a few of the Toulouse lads, Fabien Pelous, Freddy and William Servat to come back to Kielys that night and as it happened they brought most of the French team with them. As Pat said to me at one point: “Money couldn’t buy this.”
It was a great night. Thanks to Pat and all the staff for a great weekend.
I had my mother and her cousin Shiela over on the weekend Ireland were playing Wales. As I had to make a trip to Lourdes on the Saturday, we stopped off at William Servat’s father’s house in Sallies du Salat to watch the game. After the match we headed off to Hotellerie de Centre in the middle of the village where we sat down to a fantastic four-course meal.
Once again Monsieur and Madame Hubert refused to accept any payment. French hospitality at its best. I even managed to eat frog’s legs for the first time in my three years out here. Absolutely gorgeous. I couldn’t believe it.
A big silver platter for everyone to share, done in a lovely butter and garlic sauce. Once you take off the feet and the fins, they twist the legs so that they look like smaller versions of chicken wings. Delicious, I had about 20 of them.
Better talk about the match. We trained in the football ground, Le Stadium, yesterday. Nobody knows what the team is to play Northampton. The coach has been using the squad and making sure all the subs have been getting plenty of match time. But as we won our last match by 70-odd points most guys expect him to stick with a winning team.
I applied for 150 tickets, as I have 30 friends and family coming over, as well as about 90 Munster fans who are going to take in our game and travel down to San Sebastian on Saturday. I was dropping off a friend Frank Fitzgerald, his wife Caroline and their two kids, at the airport. There are Toulouse flags fluttering all over the airport, billboards and bus stop signs are all about the game. This is the third year in a row we’ve had a home quarter-final at le Stadium and there’s a great excitement around town.
It should be a cracking weekend of rugby. Three French teams, three English and two Irish. Because the stakes are so high, I think that makes the games harder to call. But there’s a good feeling in the camp, and confidence is high. We realise that European competition is different from the French championship, and everyone is on their guard. Roll on the weekend.