Rugby in south-west France

One of Toulouse's 19 championship-winning teams © Ben Lerwill

One of Toulouse's 19 championship-winning teams © Ben Lerwill - Credit: Archant

In south-west France, passions run high on and off the pitch, as Ben Lerwill discovers on his historical and sporting journey

Toulouse v Montpellier © Ben Lerwill

Toulouse v Montpellier © Ben Lerwill - Credit: Archant

Around 10.30 on a dark November night, an oval ball is descending from the skies above Toulouse. It is caught by a man built like a bull. He is muddied and battle-weary, but he hurls himself forward, thighs pumping, running smack into his opponents. He is dragged down, but too late – the ball has been released, smuggled through quick hands to a waiting teammate who crashes through two tackles, points heavenwards and, with an exhausted but almost balletic dive, flings himself and the ball across the line.

Toulouse v Montpellier © Ben Lerwill

Toulouse v Montpellier © Ben Lerwill - Credit: Archant

The night is cold, but it is far from quiet. As the ball is being touched down, the 23,000 onlookers gathered here under the floodlights produce a long, guttural roar of joy. They have spent the evening willing on the home-town team in a reverential flurry of flags and drums. Victory for Toulouse is assured now, and the festivities can start in earnest. Within the stadium the bars stay open long after the final whistle, serving up beer and wine to the fiercely merry congregation.

Toulouse supporter's scarf © Ben Lerwill

Toulouse supporter's scarf © Ben Lerwill - Credit: Archant

I have come to Toulouse to explore the relationship that south-west France has with rugby. In this proudest, most resilient of regions, it represents more than just a sport. It is, as I’m informed so many times over that it becomes a mantra, more akin to ‘une religion’. Here, rugby transcends class, binds communities and casts folk heroes. So what makes it so important?

Traditionally, France has been split into an industrialised north and north-east, and a more rural south and south-west. This historical divide is apparent in rugby terms too. When you look at the teams in the top two divisions of French rugby on a map, only three of the 30 clubs are in the northern half of the country. The national team plays its home games in Paris, but the sport’s heartland is unquestionably the south.

Since the first country-wide championship in 1892, the overwhelming majority of the great title-winning clubs, from Bordeaux to Toulouse, Agen to Lourdes, Biarritz to Perpignan, Bayonne to Béziers, Castres to Pau, have all been from the south-west. This pattern is no coincidence.

“Rugby is implanted within the culture of the region,” says Romain Bessou, who runs a Toulouse bistro owned by legendary scrum-half Fabien Galthié, a son of the south-west who was named world player of the year in 2002. “The ethos of the game ties in with the spirit of the south-west. It’s a tough, violent sport, but it’s also about teamwork and fair play. And celebration too; lots of food and drink. In the towns and villages here it has always been a sport for bons vivants. For us, rugby is a whole way of life.”

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Restoring pride

Precisely how the south-west became such a defined rugby-playing area is a little hazy. What is known is that rugby union was the first organised team sport to formally reach France, coming at a time, after the collapse of the Second French Empire in 1870, when the benefits of group exercise were being extolled in a nationwide effort to restore social and military pride after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

Like so much else, the sport initially took root in Paris. The first official rugby club was created by wealthy British expatriates in 1877; several other outfits were formed in the city, and rugby developed a solid bourgeois following. It was then that the French authorities started paying attention. They decided that rugby – a macho pastime which emphasised collaboration and strength – could fit their nation-building needs. It was well suited to a country of proud fighters, they reasoned, so they looked to spread it further afield.

Fatefully, the south-west was the first provincial region to formally ‘receive’ the game. The biggest sports committee outside of Paris was set up in Bordeaux in 1888, chiefly promoting rugby and gymnastics. Rugby took hold quickly in the city, aided by the large number of British wine traders then in residence. From Bordeaux – in the words of local sociologist Christian Pociello – the enthusiasm then flowed up the River Garonne “like a wind whipping up and channelling rugby’s spread like wildfire, towards Agen, Toulouse and Carcassonne, before the flames went on to take hold in Perpignan.”

Today the sport is far less class-based than it is in the UK, where even now rugby union is seen by some as the preserve of the middle classes. In south-west France, by contrast, it has long been ingrained as a game of the people. Countless local clubs were set up in the region’s towns and villages in the early 20th century, with many of the most prized players recruited from jobs reliant on manual labour: mines, farms, leatherworks and livestock markets. As in the UK, the sport turned fully professional in the mid-1990s, but its roots in the cities and countryside of the south-west remain entrenched.

Stained-glass windows

The game often transcends mere sport: in the woods near the town of Mont-de-Marsan, home to Division Two side Stade Montois, lies the Notre-Dame-du-Rugby chapel. Fully consecrated, its walls, display cases and stained-glass windows are adorned with rugby scenes, club shirts and used boots. There is even a statue of the Virgin being handed a rugby ball. Before the 2007 World Cup, the French national team visited the church. It’s not known what tactical advice was imparted from on high, but within weeks they had knocked out the world’s best team, New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks, before losing to England in the semi-finals. A similar rugby-themed chapel can be found in Rocamadour.

South-east France has its big clubs too, not least Toulon, where England’s one-time golden boy Jonny Wilkinson is now plying his trade. Further along the Mediterranean lies the grave of William Webb Ellis, the former Rugby School pupil who, as legend has it, picked up a football and ran with it in 1823, setting the whole sport in motion. A travelling clergyman in later life, he is buried in Menton in the Alpes-Maritimes. Even the game’s founder, it seems, naturally gravitated to the bottom of France.

But nowhere is the region’s rugby heritage felt more keenly than in Toulouse. The local side, formally named Stade Toulousain, are the most successful club team in Europe. They have won the domestic championship a record 19 times, and the pan-European Heineken Cup (still known in France as the ‘H’ cup, so as not to infringe laws on alcohol advertising) a record four times.

Tradition counts for a lot in Toulouse. It is a city where pink river-mud bricks still dominate the skyline and where announcements are made on the métro trains in both French and the local Occitan dialect. Toulouse’s rugby past is taken just as seriously, a fact reaffirmed to me by Trevor Brennan, an Irish international forward who played for the club from 2002 to 2007 and now runs a rugby pub in the city.

“No matter where you go here – the markets, the buses, the shops – people are just mad about it,” he tells me. “I don’t know of anywhere else that compares in terms of rugby passion.” We’re talking in his bar, De Danú, which is covered from floor to ceiling in scarves and framed memorabilia. Trevor himself, all 6ft 5in of him, towers above the scene – he had a reputation as a hard man, and only stopped playing after he received a ban for assaulting an opposition fan. This controversy has done little to alter his status as a local hero.

“Even six years on, everyone recognises you,” he explains. “They’ll stop you in the street and say ‘thanks for all you did for Toulouse’. You still get police honking horns at you, fire engines blaring at you. In Ireland, rugby players can walk around Dublin and be anonymous.” He gives a laugh. “Not here.”

At the night-match I attend at the stadium the rugby is physical, brutal even, although it is the moments of individual flair and panache that draw the most appreciation. When Toulouse pass the ball wide and run into space, allowing players to weave and sidestep, the noise of the home crowd rises like a storm. When the opposition, Montpellier, do the same, their fans respond in kind. The cities of Toulouse and Montpellier once tussled for the seat of the ancient province of Languedoc, so the match has the sharp tang of regional rivalry.

Southern grievances

There are countless rugby derbies in the south-west. Tellingly, however, it is the Paris teams that are still seen as the chief foes. No victory is considered as great as one against a club from the capital. In his book French Rugby Football: A Cultural History, scholar Philip Dine writes, “As the game was popularised... it became a focus for a catalogue of southern grievances against the north in general and Paris in particular.”

To an outsider like me, this continues to ring true. The clubs of the south-west seem like a big band of brothers, still competing for national pride, still mixing quick-footed élan with brute violence, and still doing their best to help wrest the fixed spotlight away from the capital, even if that is just on the rugby pitch.

The day after the Toulouse-Montpellier encounter, I go along to watch another match. It is an amateur club game at a windswept sports ground beside the River Garonne. Graffiti runs along one side of the pitch, and spectators number around one hundred. The players are 18 and under – but there is nothing restrained about their play. They thump into each other with full-blooded tackles while the supporters smoke and bawl encouragement. This is not a bourgeois occasion.

By the start of the second half, an air of raw tension hangs over the pitch. Then, at a collapsed scrum, a punch is thrown. It acts as a spark. Within seconds, the match degenerates into a 20-player fistfight, almost everyone piling in out of duty. Boots and arms go flailing into legs, torsoes and heads. No one around me seems especially shocked. For 30 seconds or more, I stare, mouth open in amazement.

The referee eventually restores order. Two players are sent off and the game continues, uneasily. Five minutes later and another smaller but frenetic fight breaks out. This time a grey-haired coach, who has spent the past hour urging on his team from a dugout, is forced to run on and manhandle one of his players to the turf, pinning his limbs to his side.

At the final whistle, the victorious team celebrates as though they have won the World Cup. There is singing and spontaneous dancing as a drizzle whips in from over the Garonne. They will be back for another game next week, players and spectators alike. This is rugby country.

Getting there

By rail: Ben travelled from London to Toulouse via Paris through Rail Europe (tel: 0844 848 4070, www.raileurope.co.uk). Standard return fares from €119.

By air: The airport at Toulouse is served by several UK carriers.

By road: Toulouse is eight-and-a-half hours from the northern Channel ports.

Where to stay

Hôtel de France

5 Rue d’Austerlitz 31000 Toulouse Tel: (Fr) 5 61 21 88 24 www.hotel-france-toulouse.com

Doubles from €69.

Where to eat

Le Bon Vivre

15bis Place Wilson 31000 Toulouse Tel: (Fr) 5 61 23 07 17

www.lebonvivre.com

Restaurant serving quality regional food – the cassoulet is particularly good.

What to see and do

Watching rugby:

Stade Toulousain play mostly at Stade Ernest Wallon in the north-west of the city. A shuttle bus runs every five minutes from Barrière de Paris métro station from two hours before kick-off. Big matches are played at the Stadium Municipal de Toulouse. Tickets, priced from around €20, are available at least three weeks ahead at www.stadetoulousain.fr or at the club shop at 73 Rue Alsace-Lorraine.

Rugby pub:

De Danú

9 Rue du Pont-Guilhemery 31000 Toulouse Tel: (Fr) 5 61 62 58 79 www.dedanu.com