Loose Pass: Rugby World Cup travel diary as heatwave hits opening weekend

Supporters at opening Rugby World Cup weekend. Credit: Alamy
Supporters at opening Rugby World Cup weekend. Credit: Alamy

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with being on the road at the Rugby World Cup…

Il est arrive! The most eagerly-anticipated and open World Cup ever finally commenced in a late summer heatwave on Friday, thrilling, spilling and swilling its way through six of the host cities on a cracking weekend of rugby.

Open, we’ve all said, and yet despite some gallant performances, the old order prevailed every time. Namibia were stubborn against Italy, but still haven’t won a World Cup game. Chile’s debut ended in defeat. Fiji couldn’t surprise Wales. Even England, first-choice for many in the ‘tier one nation most likely to become a laughing stock’ category for the pool round, tore up the script and consigned Argentina to an ignominious loss. The only other tier one nations to lose were New Zealand and Scotland, who fell to other tier one nations in results which surprised nobody. Closer the gap between the establishment and rugby’s third estate of the second tier may be, but there’s still no sustained revolution.

Opening ceremony

Not on the pitch at least. The raucous boos which greeted President Macron at the opening ceremony were a surprise to Loose Pass, although to few around in the Stade de France. As one newly-made and well-oiled acquaintance later remarked: “I’m not sure if any leader in the world right now wouldn’t get booed,” an astute observation which reminded us just how pleasant the escapism of this World Cup might be, even if the elaborate escapism of the opening ceremony was a little overdone. If you ever need to see how bizarre humans can be, find a snippet of the woman who performed as a cockerel wearing what looked to be an inflated rubber glove as the cockscomb. Not even a heavyweight champion fighting cock could look that angry.

New Zealand’s on-pitch leader Sam Cane didn’t wait to find out about how a modern-day leader’s reception might be, withdrawing with a back spasm before the game; appropriate in hindsight considering how spasmodically his team’s attack seemed to function. 16 years ago, having been stunned by France in a quarter-final, the New Zealand brains trust identified a lack of on-pitch leadership at key moments as a main reason for the loss, along with a remarkable display of defensive discipline from France and the rub of the green from the officials. On Friday? Plus ca change…

There was no doubting the fervour of the masses in the Stade de France though, with at least two locals describing it as the “best I’ve ever experienced here” and the roar that greeted Damian Penaud’s try shattering ear-drums and larynxes alike. Both quotes above were gathered before that try, after it the chap had not a vocal chord left with which to bestow further philosophical wisdom. Also appropriate, being as you would need to whisper it, but it wasn’t a game that matched the spectacle on the terraces.

Given that, and given that Ireland are now highly likely to face the hosts in a quarter-final, you might have thought that the green army in Bordeaux would have striven to match said atmosphere. Yet maybe it was the relentless 37-degree heat, coupled with the sauna-like trams ferrying it to the front-lines, but the craic as the Irish breezed past Romania rarely bubbled up beyond lukewarm. ‘Fields of Athenry’ lied low indeed until the 70th minute of the game, and even then struggled to outdo the noise that greeted Romania’s opening try. There were few Romanian fans in the stadium, but the locals love an underdog, as Wales were to find out on Sunday, and the heat did not dampen down their spirit so much. Fortunately Ireland had a monster scrum and mounting points total to do that for them and any local enthusiasm evaporated in the heat.

There could have been more causes celebres for the locals in Bordeaux to shout for in other games, but for whatever reason there are no screens at the fan zones outside the stadia, which is a huge miss. Bordeaux’s impressive Matmut Atlantique is a good 30-minute tram ride away from the old town (Lyon’s Groupama Stadium is similarly located), and it was notionally the desire to watch the Italy-Namibia action in town with a bit of lunch before heading down to the stadium at the last which was as much responsible for the jams at the gates near kick-off as poor organisation. The exit back to town also took a good two hours, meaning that the bulk of Australia-Georgia was not watchable either unless you were able to quickly nab a seat in one of the local business hotel bars, none of which were pleasant places to be in the relentless heat. Those of us – all of us really – anticipating a Saturday for four back-to-back games including one live, were left disappointed.

England-Argentina was watchable logistically (as long as you weren’t actually at the stadium in Marseille), yet a few might wish it hadn’t been. England may have lost Tom Curry for apparently trying to take the head off an Argentinean, but in reality it was the Pumas who lost their own heads, making England’s job remarkably easy with an astonishing variety of strategic mis-decisions. Props to England for the defensive effort, as well as for binding George Ford to a chair and making him watch endless reruns of Jannie de Beer’s drop-goal performance from 1999, but Argentina just played into English hands. Rejoice, England, but don’t be fooled. Samoa especially will pose a very different sort of threat.

The Argentinean bar in which Loose Pass watched the game fell into a stupor as drop-goal after drop-goal sailed over; the owner explained this in part as being due to the wave of green shirts which had washed over it during the day and knackered everyone out, but the horror on the few Hispanic faces present was palpable. There was another brief moment of horror as a Welsh fan and English fan squared boozily up to each other following a bizarre contretemps over whether Dan Biggar or Owen Farrell was the more disagreeable prat. Delightfully, things calmed down again once Johnny Sexton had won.

A hot weekend

The heat did not let up on Sunday, stifling all present. By another of those polysemous quirks, stifling was exactly what South Africa did to Scotland, the Boks presenting with a defence so aggressive that it was a constant race to see which would win, the advancing white-and-turquoise (!) line or Scotland’s ability to shift the ball away from it. Usually it was the former, culminating in tackles made frequently several metres behind the gain line. On the one notable occasion the Scots won that race, Darcy Graham was so surprised that he forgot to pass. The Boks do lots of things well, but it is this defence that ultimately is likely to carry them to the title. The speed of the line and the accuracy with which the next ball receiver is identified is just awesome. It will require a touch of genius to find a way through.

A thunderstorm alert was issued for Bordeaux on Sunday, while the gathered Welsh masses issued a few Whatsapp alerts of their own, culminating in a fabulous flash mob sing-song involving hundreds in Bordeaux’s Place de la Bourse. Seven hours until kick-off, the Welsh had already outsung the Irish; they then spent the rest of the day outdrinking them as well. The closeness of the atmosphere could have been soporific to the embeered red tide, but fortunately this was a game between two teams with realistic aspirations of a semi and lived fully up to its billing. Fiji already had a Semi, but the punctuating moment of a magnificent match was Semi’s mistake that may yet cost his side a quarter. His howled expletive of anguish as he slumped to the turf might become an iconic moment of despair for years to come, not even the most hardened fan could fail to feel sorry for him.

Nobody of a non-Welsh persuasion will be getting any sympathy from anyone local soon. As mentioned above, the French love an underdog, they love an injustice even more, and despise negativity even more than that, so when Wales performed a lamentable slo-mo walk back to a restart to waste some time, shortly after Fiji had got the rough end of several refereeing decisions, the Matmut seethed as only a French crowd can, visibly lifting the huge specimens in white. Had Radradra caught and scored, the noise may well have been close to Penaud try levels.

A thunderous contest then, rounding off round one. The weather came late to the party, with the lightning crossing the skies and thunder rattling the windows only in the small hours. A fitting finale for those who stayed awake to carry on the party in town, a sleep-ruining nuisance for those needing to catch up before departure to the next destination. The number of red eyes and rolling sleepy heads on the early train to Paris on Monday thus failed to distinguish one group from another, but when they all wake up, there’ll be plenty still to talk about from a fine opening weekend.

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