Peter Bills: Perpignan victory will see the Catalans celebrate for months

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The Independent Online

The travel agents' windows in the town have suitcases and kitbags stuffed full of club clothing; caps, T shirts and socks.

The butcher's has a pig's head with a nice cosy club scarf wrapped around it. Even such sober organisations as banks and building societies in the centre of Perpignan, the last French town before the Spanish border in south-east France, have rugby balls, flags and club stickers all over their windows.

Maybe it is no surprise.

Last Saturday evening in Lyon, Perpignan reached their first French Championship rugby final in 11 years by beating Stade Francais of Paris

25-21. If they overcome Clermont-Auvergne in the final this Saturday night before an 80,000 crowd at Stade de France, Paris, two things will happen – Perpignan will land their first French rugby Championship title since 1955 and the whole town will go crazy when the squad goes home with the great trophy on Sunday evening.

It's already been some week for Catalonia, that much fought over, fiercely independent region which straddles the French-Spanish border. Barcelona won the UEFA Champions League last Wednesday night by beating Manchester United and if Perpignan could follow that by winning the French rugby title for the first time in 54 years, the Catalans will celebrate for months.

The irony is that everyone expected Perpignan to make it to this Paris final once they had signed Dan Carter from New Zealand. Equally, no-one subsequently expected them to reach the final once Carter wrecked an Achilles tendon in a club match in Paris on January 30.

Yet two things have happened since and I'm willing to bet they are not unconnected. Perpignan have continued to grow as a club, as a team and Carter has stayed. I think it almost certain that the latter has played a quiet yet influential part in Perpignan's maturity as an outfit.

Dan Carter would be the last person to propose such a preposterous notion. He would doubtless tell you that he's had very little to do with it all, it has been the players who have played well and showed such a collective spirit that they stand on the verge of history this week. That is his quiet, unassuming way.

Yet in the frantic moments after last Saturday's semi-final triumph in Lyon, it was not only noticeable but I suspect hugely relevant that once Carter emerged onto the pitch among his team-mates, almost every single one of them embraced him warmly, a true comrade in arms albeit one temporarily hors de combat. The smiles were broad, the embraces long. This was no outsider being formally greeted. It looked as though Carter had just played his part in Perpignan's triumph.

Carter has won huge respect in Catalonia. Of course, he has fulfilled plenty of sponsorship commitments by remaining in Perpignan and carrying out his rehabilitation there. A lot of overseas players would have gone home to get fit - some southern hemisphere stars at other French clubs have done just that. South Africans Marius Joubert and Brett Russell at Clermont-Auvergne are just two examples.

Carter didn't do that. He's still around and he was there on Saturday at the moment of his club's triumph. Clearly, he has earned immense respect by that and his team-mates have warmed to him.

And while we're on the topic of so-called coincidences, the stunning first try that Perpignan scored in the 24th minute of the semi-final by full-back Porical, an absolute jewel of a movement and touchdown, seemed to be familiar. Could it have been whilst watching the Crusaders that I first saw it put into practice ? Surely not !

Carter will be in Paris this Saturday night, among his pals and hoping as much as them that Perpignan can do it. Only after that, early next week, will he finally bring to an end this French sojourn that has turned out in the most extraordinary way, after despair and frustration seemed sure to be the only mementos of his long awaited taste of French rugby life.

Maybe it goes to show that you never know what is around the corner in life, that it has strange ways of turning out, very often against every assumed expectation. But maybe it also reveals that even in the depths of adversity, the most up-beat, inventive people can always find some positives to take out of apparent negativity.

Whether Perpignan wins or loses the French club final on Saturday night, Dan Carter has surely done that already. It is the mark of the man.