The Roar
The Roar

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The one thing that unites World Cup players and fans - you gotta fight for your right to party

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29th September, 2023
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Escaping from Lyon’s maze of a stadium a bit early, up, and then down concrete spirals Dante would have approved as illustrations for his hellscapes, I dodged three fistfights.

Rugby supporters are notoriously genteel compared to the Visigoths of football, even when humiliation has descended on a proud team like the Wallabies, and an eisteddfod of ‘Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves’ and ‘She’s a Lady’ had swamped an angry Australian rendition of ‘Eddie’s a Wanker.’

Gold and red are a stark identifying contrast, but no gendarmerie secured the echoing staircases. Rugby is not soccer. Supporters can mix, no matter how drunk, and FIFA’s security budget swamps the entire Rugby World Cup expenditure, even beer.

This may not be clear to the French organisers who have yellow vested teenagers positioned to guard (or perhaps protest) the game en masse, where they are both unneeded and unlikely to stop even five Georgians or Pretorians who storm the pitch.

With the army in the car park and teen security guards on the field, we were alone as we fled the field on the stairs, as young men fought. Luckily for the Australian families hurrying away from the carnage, all the fights involved internal Welsh feuds.

Three lads from Carmathen reenacting the Battle of Mortha Lane, a one-on-one undercard duel between a squat Swansea striker and a rangy dancer in a Wattstown jersey, and the main event, a full-on melee between Llantwit and Llantrisant refereed by Llandudno with about ten boys taking on mobile TMO phone duty, laughing at the wildly inaccurate swings.

“How Green Was Your Mum’s Valley” perhaps, more than any gleeful taunting towards the vanquished.

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The absence of a proper fight by Australian rugby, except a nonsensical campaign by Eddie Jones against journalists which smacked of grievances past, apparently left Welsh boxers disinterested in a brawl on the street. It was all just too sad. But it was only the last of the 19 days of rugby staged in Marseille, Nantes, Bordeaux, Saint-Etienne, Saint-Denis and Lyon when a rugby melancholy hit.

Wallabies coach Eddie Jones. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Very few things were similar in the stadia: Marseille’s melted sandwich of an arena where I scrummaged a commando Scot out of his kilt, the swoop and soar of Nantes’ sleek stands where real commandos patrolled Irish picnickers, buttery Bordeaux where a half dozen halfbacks played in the rain, scattered, silty Saint-Etienne where Argentines finally drowned out the misplaced ‘La Marseillaise’ to the relief of Samoans and me, suburban Saint-Denis where crime tops the country’s charts, Jean de Villiers stole Schalk Burger’s biltong, and Ireland did the smash-and-grab job Jones told Australia he had in his back pocket, and finally, Parc Olympique Lyonnais, built for amplification of sound, where Wales made themselves heard.

The things which united all six places was an underestimation of the beer rugby requires, lovely local brass bands who played without regard to the score, and a dizzying set of numbers required to be known. From hotel to seat, one might need to know the numbers of your hall, gate, stop, deck, platform, zone, voiture, place, exit, entry, another gate, direction, block, corridor, section, row, and seat.

That is why we needed so much beer.

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France is not an early place. Coffee bars open when the sun is already climbing into the dark blue sky from behind Roman ruins. If you think you can do five things before noon where you come from, adjust that to one and a half in Marseille. Breakfast starts and ends just before lunch and lunch drags on into aperitifs and dinner starts cooking at eight. Thus, a nine o’clock start is perfect. Until the end. When a station closes at 12:30. For real.

A smooth exit in rugby is the mark of a polished team. An Irish goodbye is not even seen, but in France, taking leave is a performance unto itself. Save your ticket or have your card at all times, in car parks, apartments, zoos, stations, and theatres; just because you had the right to enter does not mean you are allowed to leave.

Tales of woe: trains stopped and exits locked, ticket machines frozen as the tram departs, and a mysterious lack of signs and warnings. These are the ties which bind the disparate rugby tribes currently navigating France. But always, there is a way.

Always, the salvation of food, if you can find it.

Mussels and codfish and frites and whites and reds and laminated pastries will call your name, and you find yourself with rivals who want to talk about the games which were or are or will soon be.

There is a ritual to rugby introductions:

“Where are you from?” (Unless obvious).

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“What did you play?”

“Your man (fill in the blank) is going well.”

“I think it’s going to be (so and so) versus (so and so) in the (fill in quarterfinal or semifinal or final).”

But over beers (the Scots), aperols (Queenslanders), bold Negronis (English), champagne (Argentines), whisky (Irish) or dirty gin (Italians) the conversation delved deeper.

The Welsh not engaged in fisticuffs were amongst the best versed of fans, rivalling the Kiwis, about opposing teams. “So is it going to be Damian Willemse or Willie le Roux at the back in a 6-2?” Most of them can name most of any Rugby Championship team albeit Afrikaans and Māori names become melody.

After a few false steps saying Dewi Lake’s name, I went with George North as my object of praise and how good has he been? Only Waisea Nayacalevu (and of course Garry Ringrose) have challenged his status. But then a table of men from the valleys asserted clearly that Gareth Davies has been the nine of the tourney: “He has scored more tries in the history of this competition than any other scrum-half, sir.”

The worst possible thing you can do is open the subject of Mr. 50-22 Jac Morgan to followers of Pays de Galles: “He can do it all” it starts but it ends with everyone standing on the table singing about Brynamman in the Amman Valley in tenor.

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At the moment, the Irish are heady about their rise, so one must nod politely when Hugo Keenan and Mack Hansen are portrayed as the alpha and omega of our sport, with James ‘Joyce’ Lowe awarded the Golden Boot and Bundee Aki, he who made the break which won the game they claim was dominant yet also the game of the century because it was so close but also not close at all. For me, it all starts and ends with Johnny Sexton, who is master, commander, water boy, coach, sextant, chronometer, and compass; and in the middle it is shape shifter Caelan Doris, who goes from doe-eyed schoolboy to raging bull when he dons the scrum cap with the Two Tadghs rampaging to the ball.

When encountering the rare Portuguese fan, I found the name Nuno Sousa Guedes to open all doors and trigger a free round.

Try and find a Namibian if you can, but if you do, they immediately begin to apologise in French: “Je suis desolee. Je suis n’est pas un Deysel.” Uruguayans just walk around with signs announcing they are not from Argentina, and Chileans already have flats in Nice and Paris, so they are rarely on the boulevards.

The English are not rare; even their steaks are well done. Ruddy faces and muddy shoes; gleeful about the return of Courtney Lawes (“How good? How bloody good, man?”) and as always, relishing villain status, in France of all places.

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Their challengers for villainy, besides Eddie Jones who is lustily booed at every turn and even by his own fans, are big South Africans strolling and smiling across the land, not only the dastardly favourites of the bookies, but apparently gutting the ‘morality’ of the game by having skillful forwards who are small and fast and have good hands.

The gap between what people think a fan base is like (confident and loud) and what it is really like (confidently quiet) is most dramatic with Saffas. Always be ready to talk 7-1, 6-2, and 5-3 with them but do not in any event invite them to wrestle or race or climb a patisserie naked, because only the Welsh are more ready to do all of that and more.

Most French are not aware of anyone save Antoine Dupont, who is mounted on every available billboard in the nation and was only made more famous when a Namibian got cheeky with him.

I have three cartoon books of Dupont, but eagerly await volume four: The Man Inside the Masque.

If, however, you run into people from Toulouse or Toulon, you will dig deep: Thibaud Flament’s feet and Peato Mauvaka’s hands.

Tongans are notoriously shy, Samoans do not drink in French pubs much, and I did not see the Japanese fans except in throngs around the Gare de Lyon, but I did find Fijians all over. I avoided the obvious names and went with Saracen prop Eroni Mawi, anchor of their scrum, and of course, the current king of the whole damn tournament: Simon Raiwalui.

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He has been everything followers want in a coach: open, responsive, true to his roots, and ready for each match.

The fight has narrowed, the list of possibles is narrowed to a dozen or so, and the contenders will make dates for mid-October soon.

Box office clashes of fans loom: outnumbered South Africans in a sea of Bleu and a delicious dragon vs. puma sing-off.

But all you need for street MMA is a couple of happy boyos from Neath.

Wallaby fans? It is unclear what is needed, which is why we are here. Centralise or rein in Hamish, grassroots capital or borrow the farm, bring the boys home or let them play wherever, run from the back or learn the game current referees reward, believe in change or believe in tradition, Eddie in or out.

One thing is certain: it will be a battle royale.

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