Peter Bills: The undiscovered joys of French club rugby

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.

Sport
Lionel Messi pictured after reaching the final
world cup 2014
Sport
Lionel Messi and Thomas Muller have shone brightest for Argentina and Germany respectively on their way to the World Cup final
Sport
Brazilian fans watch the match for third place between Brazil and Netherlands
Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: Dutch pile on the misery in third place playoff
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?