Kathy Sheridan, an Irish Times journalist and a sports cynic went to Beziers on a rare trip to a rugby game. Was she converted
You spend your life rolling your eyes at the almighty bloody fuss they make about sport. Then it produces a moment you know will remain scorched in your psyche till the day you die.
The moment came just after half-time. Munster were three points down and the Castres supporters were in raucous, whistling, ear-splitting flight. Behind us, a distraught Shannonsider, perspiring in his Sunday suit, bellowed like a wounded bull.
The rest was silence. The bodhrans had ceased, the red flags were limp, another dream was dying in the Mediterranean heat. The prettily clad, blue-and-white Castres crowd were turning our red cards back to front and waving the white side at us. That hurt.
Then a few Munster men began to sing. At first, that lonely old lament seemed too close to the bone, too scattered. And then it began to swell. Slowly, almost hesitantly, Munster men, women and children rose to their feet until the tide became irresistible and that great, passionate heart began to beat again as a mighty, spine-tingling Low lie the fields swept through the stands. The bodhran beaters knew to remain silent; this needed no adornment. This was simply Munster, in all its fierce, tribal, primeval power.
Down on the reserves bench, two lads faced the crowd and applauded. The Castres pretties tried to fight it; then they turned to gape; and finally were stunned into silence. We like to think that they never really recovered after that.
As a cynical outsider, who views sport as a filthy amalgam of bought-in loyalty and risible ethics, I found a kind of conversion in those few days around the lovely city of Montpellier.
Our packed Airbus flight from Shannon seemed entirely composed of friends, neighbours or parents of squad members.
None was taking victory for granted; the mood was reflective, never bullish.
In France, they drank the wimpish French bars dry of beer and fled when told they could only have spirits; Munster lads didn’t get where they are today by being G-and-T wussies.
They got confused from time to time; early Saturday, one fellow managed to find the Ibis hotel AND the correct room number but discovered too late for the terrorised Frenchmen inside – Ah jaze Tadgh, TADGH! WILL Y’OPEN THE EFFIN DOOR. WILL YA Jaze, who’re you? – that it was actually the wrong Ibis.
At an interminable taxi queue late the same night (yes, there is a taxi service worse than Dublin’s), war seemed imminent when two muscular French guys jumped to the head of the queue.
A young Munster lad unleashed a stream of expletives , to which the bigger of the two – let’s call him Maurice – took grave exception.
When Maurice ripped off his elegant sweater as a prelude to tearing out the young lad’s liver, a ripple of laughter emanated from a clatter of big Munster lads further back. The hilarity grew when Maurice made to remove his vest, and suddenly, downtown Montpellier was ringing to a mighty chorus of An Poc are Buile. Maurice was gracious in defeat ; he sheepishly donned his sweater, grinned and slunk away.
Somehow, we made it to the Munster village beside the stadium several hours before the game, where we bought flags and hats with bells and watched the men urinate openly and legally, in a contraption shaped like an eight foot plastic rocket with four corners. A man can stand and do his business in public while not exposing his private bits. No, it’s hardly dignified but probably beats queueing for a non-flush toilet.
Anyway, this was the view for my young daughters and me as we availed of the only seating in the place – a few bollards beside the security gate. The promised village consisted of a vast, industrial hangar in a dusty landscape. The food consisted of baguettes filled with nauseating pink sausages. The ERC’s perception of what might keep the Paddies happy could bear some scrutiny. And an organisation with its HQ in Dublin can hardly plead ignorance.
But hell, there more important issues to be tackled.
And after the storm, we made our way to little Montpellier airport in a great convoy of buses, the talk was of Munster vindicated, on French soil. That was the greatest Munster day ever, said an elderly Munster man, better even than the All Blacks. We didn’t just take them on on the field; we took them on in the singing and whistling but what we really showed them is that people who play fair can be winners too.
Our flight was due to depart at 8 pm. At 8.30, according to one source, 83 passengers from different flights were still on the missing list. It was bedlam. There were hour long queues to check in. Some were waiting in a plane for over two hours. We had our passports checked five times between check-in and take-off.
Given a choice, anyone would have pulled strokes to avoid that sweaty scrum. Declan Kidney could have. But he didn’t; management and team suffered like everyone else. In the dying days of Kidney’s Munster reign, it was as neat an example as any, of what has made Munster the force it is today. (It was commonplace to find a few hundred at a Munster outing just a few years ago). This is no elite team lauded by fans from a safe distance but the nearest thing to a family, welded together by pride, honour and a sense of common striving.
On Friday morning, we bought a bodhran from a young fellow in the duty free shop who said he had nailed down his air ticket to Cardiff last October ; got it for 70 pounds. Who’s laughing now ?
Meanwhile, there’s the mother of a Munster player who is sizing up a daughter of mine as a possible match for her boy. Okay, she’s a bit young and all that but we live in uncertain times. How else am I to get a ticket for Cardiff ?