A feast for the senses
May 24, 2010
Toulouse thank their fans for their unstinting support following their Heineken Cup Final triumph over Biarritz at the Stade de France © Getty Images
Toulouse's triumph over Biarritz to claim the Heineken Cup and Cardiff Blues' historic victory over Toulon in the European Challenge Cup Final may not rank as classic matches but both encounters were of the vintage variety when it comes to providing a heady mix of sound and colour.
The Heineken Cup in particular, not only sets the standard in terms of on-field excellence, it repeatedly provides a feast for senses as intoxicating as the action. That was the case once again at the Stade de France in Paris on Saturday, while Sunday's showdown at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille for once rivalled its more illustrious rival on both counts.
The powerful allure of the Heineken Cup was there to be seen on what was a glorious day in more ways than one in the French capital. Tens of thousands made the pilgrimage to the not-so-pretty suburb of Saint Denis where the stadium is very much a diamond in the rough. The future use of the venue by French rugby's leading lights may be under review but the magnificent setting and elements combined to issue a reminder that it would take a very special place to match what it can offer on a day such as this.
Club colours from across the rugby spectrum could be found amongst the capacity crowd - Munster, Ospreys, Leicester, Leinster, Northampton and Sale fans all drawn to the showpiece event by the promise of a fantastic day, glorious sunshine and he security of knowing that the experience cannot be tarnished by watching your side's dream shattered. There are few sporting events that can command this kind of support amongst general fans and although there is always a danger that it could dilute the intensity of the atmosphere, like the swathes of corporate seats, it is a risk European Rugby Cup chiefs are happy to take with reportedly thousands of seats already sold for next year's Cardiff finale - although you fear that touts are one step ahead of genuine fans on that front.
Red was the dominant colour at the Stade de France, be it of the Toulousain or Basque variety, or even that of the scantily-clad dancing girls direct from the Moulin Rouge that escorted the trophy into the stadium along with a trapeze artist, cheerleaders and giant puppets. Such pre-match colour may be considered traditional fare by those used to the creative concoctions of Max Guazzini whose marketing magic lures capacity crowds to the venue to watch his side Stade Francais during the regular season, but for those not accustomed to such artificial grandeur it is simply a riot of madness, a seemingly necessary makeweight required before the serious business of high-class and high-risk rugby. The atmosphere reached fever pitch as kick off loomed, fuelled by expectation, pyrotechnics and the soaring temperatures that hit a welcome but unseasonal 90 degrees.
The colour came alive in waves as it mirrored the pattern of the game - first the inflatable batons brandished by the Biarritz fans struck up a frenetic chorus only to be swallowed by the resurgent Toulouse fans happily drowning in a sea of flags. And so it continued, each set of supporters sparking into life when given even the slightest hint that their side were about to deliver a score, or slipping into pantomime-like crowd participation on the appearance of the villain - in this case Toulouse lock Patricio Albacete, who hauled down Biarritz hooker Benoit August off the ball and subsequently headed to the sin-bin with boos ringing around the stadium.
As Toulouse took a vice-like grip on the game their fans did likewise, with their chanting and drumming taking on a demonic nature, baying for Biarritz blood and collectively expressing their dismay when their side had the nerve to offer mercy in the form of a handling error or two. But any animosity is just part of the show, it only takes on a more sinister form on the field and even then only fleetingly.
Both ends of the emotional spectrum played out at the same time come the final whistle, with Toulouse's delight and their Basque rivals' pain all too evident on the field and in the stands. It may not have been the most enthralling of finals but for the 80,000 vociferous fans present, many of whom could be heard singing long into the night, it will no doubt live long in the memory - whether they like it or not.
And then to Marseille, where the temperatures were even higher, although the intensity was not perhaps, reflecting that this was of course the second tier of European rugby - but there was nothing second rate about the occasion.
The perimeter cage surrounding the cauldron that is the Stade Velodrome brought a more tribal feel to proceedings but with 99% of the 50,000 fans baking under the Mediterranean sun supporting Toulon there was no volatile edge, just a sense of expectation. In fact, given the day it was perhaps more like a congregation, gathered to worship at the feet of fly-half Jonny Wilkinson. Chants of 'Jonny, Jonny' accompanied the Englishman throughout the day from his epic warm-up through to his premature exit and, after witnessing such adulation, you can see why that after less than a year since his high-profile switch across the Channel, Wilkinson is very much at home at Toulon - you sense he will not be going anywhere soon.
Cardiff Blues' supporters celebrate their side's historic victory in Marseille © Getty Images
Pre-match entertainment took a somewhat bizarre turn with what appeared to be three portly-looking referees taking to the field but concerns over the well being of Alain Rolland were soon dismissed as the trio broke into an operatic and crowd-pleasing medley. There was also plenty of sentiment with banner tributes to departing Kiwi Tana Umaga and veteran hooker Phillip Fitzgerald but it would be another former All Black - the Blues' Xavier Rush - who would sign off with the region with a memorable win.
Fighting what appeared to be a losing battle off the field, the Blues' travelling support, numbering maybe 500, fed on the bravery of their side who never took a backward step and as the game swung in the visitors' favour, so it did in the stands. Suddenly, Bread of Heaven was the only song in town and with the Highveld-like scenery draped across the skyline the game took on the feel of Rorke's Drift, the home crowd stunned into silence.
As it did in Paris, the final whistle brought joy and despair in equal measure and crumpled bodies littered the battleground. As the fans streamed for the exit you feared that the stadium would be empty before the Blues' Paul Tito and Gethin Jenkins had their hands on the silverware, but the majority of the Toulon fans stayed to honour their warriors, who in return stripped themselves of kit before launching it into the crowd.
There was not the party that the Toulonnais faithful had come for but they, like their team, will be back knocking on the door in the H-Cup next season. The Blues, too, will also return to Europe's premier event next season but their fans, and no doubt those of the Scarlets who saw their side sneak in Heineken Cup through the back door as a result, were too busy enjoying this special day to cast an eye into the future. They can leave that to the rest of us who will relish the return of Europe's finest spectacle next season.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.