Peter Bills: The undiscovered joys of French club rugby

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The Independent Online

One of the intrinsic delights of rugby football in Europe remains for many people an undiscovered gem.

Yet for the connoisseur, this enduring secret of the game is easy to find, simple to locate and pleasurable in the extreme. If you love rugby, then a weekend of club games in the south of France ought to be top of your "must do" list and with so many clubs within an easy drive of Toulouse, it is easy to do.

This last weekend, I took in three French club matches from the Top 14 in just 48 hours. Castres played Toulon on Friday night, a match between two teams anxiously looking over their shoulders at the relegation zone beneath them. Castres, the club of French captain Lionel Nallet, won 25-9 to give themselves much more breathing space after what has been an extremely difficult season at the Stade Pierre Antoine.

Castres is a small, pleasant town of the Tarn region, no more than an hour east of Toulouse. Indeed, I used Toulouse as the base for the weekend.

The Irish coaching duo Jeremy Davidson and Marc McCall have had a difficult time this season at Castres and they are being replaced. But it looks as though they will have helped the club remain in the top flight when they depart in May. Davidson’s association with the Castres spans both his playing and coaching days, lasting more than a decade.

Late Friday night, you head the car back to Toulouse, a logical overnight stop. The following morning, there was time for a leisurely pain au chocolate and a couple of coffees in one of the elegant squares of Toulouse, capital of the Haute-Garonne region, plus a brief stroll around the Saturday market, before an early lunch.

My destination for the Saturday afternoon game was Montauban, only 40 minutes drive north of Toulouse, for the Top 14 fixture with Clermont-Auvergne. Clermont started the day fourth in the table against Montauban’s eight place so it wasn’t unreasonable to expect more from the visitors.

Instead, they had to rely on the boot of their Australian fly half Brock James, who kicked 14 of their points, including a drop goal with the final kick of the game, to scramble a 19-19 draw. It was a match of some drama, a brave and spirited Montauban side getting out to a 16-9 lead before Anthony Floch’s converted try with seven minutes left made it 16-16.

Back came Montauban, full-back Dalla-Riva dropping a soaring 75th minute goal from halfway to snatch a 19-16 lead. It seemed likely to be enough but with the Montauban scrum being scrunched, James took the chance to drop the crucial goal in the 80th minute.

Saturday night at Toulouse offered a wide variety of choice in the field of restaurants and hotels, to suit most budgets. And if you like to keep fit, take your training gear because there is nothing better on a quiet, sunny Sunday morning than a run along the towpath of the Canal du Midi which threads its way through the city. Parts of it, lined by trees on either bank with the sun glinting through the fresh, new leaves of spring, are exquisite.

The climax to the weekend was Stade Toulouse versus Stade Francais of Paris; a 37,000 sell out on Sunday night at the Toulouse Municipal stadium. The Toulouse club ground, Stade Ernest Wallon, would be the dream of most clubs in the UK, and Ireland but a capacity of only 17,000 means most of the major matches are switched across the city to the ground that has staged World Cup matches in both soccer and rugby in the last 10 years.

Before the game, which began at 8.45pm to suit television, I caught up with Stade Francais’ Australian coach Ewen McKenzie at the team hotel. The current top four in France - Toulouse, Perpignan, Paris and Clermont-Auvergne - seem certain to contest the semi-finals.

Given they are eight points ahead of fifth placed Brive, Paris look assured of a place but McKenzie finds it hard to ignore the principles of a lifetime. "I play every match to win; planning for some future match weeks and weeks ahead that may or may not happen, isn’t my scene at all. Everyone tells me we’ll be there in the semis, but I want us to keep winning. That’s the best guarantee of success."

Stade Francais didn’t win on Sunday night, going down 15-11 despite scoring the only try of the game. But it was a terrific contest and a great occasion.

Europe is not cheap to visit at the present time because of the collapsed pound. But you just couldn’t find a better weekend if you love your rugby, plus the French joie de vivre and culinary delights.