THERE WERE few better places to be on planet rugby on Saturday than in the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona where Perpignan beat Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon in front of 55,000 fanatical supporters, the biggest crowd anywhere in the world this weekend, writes Rugby World editor Paul Morgan.
I was in the Olympic Stadium for the last rugby match played there, the 2002 Women’s World Cup and fortunately in 1992 when Linford Christie became the fastest man on the planet and La Ramblas resounded with the voices of happy Brits.
The stadium has hardly changed in those 19 years (certainly the bars sold the same hot dogs!) and looking around the only regret I had was that Argentina ditched the idea of basing their Four Nations matches in Barcelona, so many of their players are from Europe. There’s still time to changes your minds my Puma friends! You won’t regret it, I guarantee.
For the first half it looked as though Perpignan’s decision to move the match into their Catalan heartland, their spiritual home, had backfired as their players froze on the biggest stage in their lives.
Guillaume Vilaceca, Robins Tchale Watchou were yellow-carded by Irish referee Alain Rolland, Vilaceca for a head-first charge on Pierre Mignon at a ruck, that was reminiscent of Bakkies Botha’s disgraceful hit on Adam Jones on the 2009, which brought a ban. Rolland could easily have made it red.
But even though they played 20 of the first 45 with 14-men they only trailed 11-9, as Toulon failed to capitalise.
And with 15 on the field the Catalan spirit was raised and with the crowd rising to their every hit, kick, pass and run Perpignan cranked into life. Jérôme Porical kicked 19 points and two tries arriving from Adrien Plante and Perry Freshwater, who’s charge from six inches was immediately dedicated to his wife and three children from a self-confessed “sentimental old fool”.
The Perpignan fans are magnificent and thousands were still partying into the small hours, picnics breaking out wherever you looked on the hill leading up to the stadium. It was, without doubt, one of the greatest rugby occasions I have ever experienced.
Jonny Wilkinson was a bit-part player on his biggest day in club rugby as his pack failed to get him enough ball or penalty chances to work his magic, as was Scotland full-back Rory Lamont.
Toulon have a wonderful owner in Mourad Boudjellal, a rugby man who reminds me a lot of Nigel Wray, who is in the game because he loves it and he loves the craic!
Boudjellal promised me after the game that he will continue to buy big with Matt Giteau and Botha on their way to southern France. “More money, more singings and hopefully more success for Toulon,” he told me.
They certainly could have done with Botha’s hard-nosed edge against Perpignan, even if George Smith was outstanding. Surely the best on the floor openside in the world?
Perpignan, the 2003 finalists now have to head to either Northampton or Ulster in the semi-final.
If that match was also in Barcelona I don’t think either team would have the ability to withstand the passion and ferocity of the occasion but as it is away from Spain, Perpignan will be possess nowhere near the same threat. They have played their cup final and played the match they have wanted since they first entered the Heineken Cup. And that is usually followed by a defeat.
Don’t let the scoreline deceive you either. Toulon were well-beaten, losing 29-18 until injury time when Fabien Cibray scampered over for a try on the final whistle. Perpignan may have already started their one-hour lap of honour by then!
The match also consigned one dodgy theory to the bin – the one that suggests you can’t create an atmosphere in a stadium with a running track around it.
Try telling that to the 40,000 Catalans who sung, shouted and roared themselves hoarse. For most of the match it sounded like each of them had brought megaphones to Barcelona – some had. And don’t forget the 15,000 who made the trip from Barcelona. Their songs will live long in the memory.
So when the self-interested souls from association football tell you West Ham, Spurs or Leyton Orient can’t play soccer in London’s Olympic Stadium, because they can’t create an atmosphere you tell them that is nonsense as the men, women and children from Perpignan and Toulon proved on an unforgettable day in northern Spain.
One or two players of note
Toulon tighthead – Davit Kubriashvili – You can forget Martin Johnson watching the tape of this game to study the abilities of Jonny Wilkinson. Send the tape to Graham Rowntree and tell him to watch Kubriashvili as this is one Georgian who will give England a rough ride at the World Cup. Andy Sheridan or Alex Corbisiero will need to be on top form in New Zealand.
Perpignan’s Damien Chouly – If you stop Chouly’s running game you stop Perpignan in their tracks. Toulon’s back row gave him an easy ride and he galloped into the open spaces time and time again. He was the main reason they got the upper hand in the second half, with his partner in crime, Henry Tuilagi. What they haven’t got in a fetcher in the back row – they are all power.
HT: 6-11 Attendance: 55,000
Perpignan: J Porical; A Plante, D Marty, J Grandclaude (G Hume 59), J Candelon; N Laharrague (J Michel 69), F Cazenave (D Mele 61); J Schuster (P Freshwater 48), G Guirado (C Geli 74), N Mas (capt, K Pulu 64), G Vilaceca (R Alvarez Kairelis 59), R Tchale Watchou, B Guiry, D Chouly, H Tuilagi (O Tonita 69)
Scorers: Tries – A Plante, P Freshwater; Cons – J Porical (2) ; Pens – J Porical (5)
Yellow Cards: G Vilaceca (9), R Tchale Watchou (34)
Toulon: R Lamont; R Wulf, G Messina (F Contepomi 66), G Lovobalavu, C Loamanu (P Sackey 55); J Wilkinson, P Mignoni (F Cibray 59); L Emmanuelli (S Taumoepeau 52), S Bruno (J Genevois 48), D Kubriashvili (D Tussac 74), K Chesney (C Samson 59), D Schofield, J Fernandez Lobbe, G Smith, J van Niekerk (capt, J El Abd 71)
Scorers: Tries – G Smith, J van Niekerk, F Cibray; Cons – J Wilkinson (2); Pens – J Wilkinson (2)
Heineken Man of the Match: Damien Chouly (Perpignan)
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)