By Kate Rowan
It only takes two words: Six Nations. As well as conjuring images of red, white, green and three shades of blue, those two words also have the power to transport you from London to Rome to Edinburgh to Cardiff to Dublin to Paris.
I began my weekend in traditional fashion, flying from Dublin to Paris. Sounds about right… “You can’t beat Paris in the spring time” is what the pundits said every second year when I was growing up. Accompanying panoramic images of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe were beamed across our screens. This visual tour of the City of Lights would invariably end up at the Parc des Princes in my early memories and then later the Stade de France.
This time around, however, I caught only a fleeting glimpse of the Stade de France from the RER suburban train. My Parisian destination was the Gare de Lyon.
I boarded a TGV that carried me almost 850km to my first destination of the weekend: Narbonne. From Narbonne, I would reboard the TGV to my second destination, Perpignan, a further 70-odd kilometres south.
Now may be a good moment to ask: why Narbonne and Perpignan?
Most would consider the encounter at the Stade de France, the main event of this France v Ireland rugby weekend. I would have too. However, when you tear yourself away from the bright lights and experience a weekend like this it can cause something of a perspective shift.
Last year, I spent a day in Florence covering Italy Women v Ireland Women before heading to the main event at the Stadio Olimpico. Yet such was the contrast between the grandeur of the Roman stadium compared to the Stadio Mario Lodigiani, a community ground that is home to Firenze Rugby 1931, that the women’s game frankly felt like a curtain-raiser for the weekend.
That’s no disrespect towards our wonderful Florentine hosts. Rugby is still a growing sport in Italy and so a women’s game is going to have the feeling of being off the beaten track.
However, the French have always had a reputation for having the largest and most partisan crowds when it comes to U20 and women’s fixtures.
I read one piece by an Irish journalist expressing what a shame it was to have the U20 and women’s games so far from Paris, as it did not allow for Irish fans to access either.
Again, I would have thought a long similar line. With Donnybrook just a stone’s throw from the Aviva Stadium, it is a very convenient location to attract visiting fans who may not have otherwise given their support to the U20s or women.
Yet, what the French do in holding the U20 and women’s fixtures in stadia such as Parc des Sports et de l’Amitié, home of RC Narbonne, or in USA Perpignan’s Stade Aimé Giral is that they make these matches in their own right, not just as opening or support acts for the men.
It is a pretty powerful statement of support for the youth and women’s games. Without coming across as pessimistic, many of the young players will never reach the heights of playing in the Stade de France. For those who do hit the pinnacle of professionalism, it is excellent practice to play in front of almost a full crowd in the same ground as a ProD2 side play. For others it will always be something to be proud of, regardless of whether you were one of les Bluets who pulled away in the second half or a young Irishman beaten 34-13.
As for the women’s game, I’ve never experienced anything like the buzz surrounding the Stade Aimé Giral in the build-up to the game. I’ve always found that there is an almost intangible ambiance reserved for Test matches: a particular sort of electric frisson.
It is usually only reserved for the men’s game. But not in Perpignan. To me it seemed the crowd of 11,108, who cheered France to an 18-6 win, were there not to make a statement to support women’s sport; they were simply there for a love of rugby.
When asking fans that night whether the fact it was a women’s match mattered, I was met on all occasions with Gallic shrugs and answers along the lines of ‘in Perpignan the people are crazy about rugby; men, women, it does not matter because it is France playing in the Six Nations’. You also get Test rugby for €10 a head!
Yes, one may regard this sojourn to the South of France as an alternative Six Nations weekend, but I think it could be the Six Nations weekend of the future.
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