Unique challenges of playing away in France

Leicester Tigers playing at home in the European Cup; a different experience to an away game in France

As the Heineken Cup reaches the knock-out stages, and Leicester travel to Toulon, now seems a good time to reflect on some of the unique challenges that arise when playing away in France.

The first is the fact that the French are twice the players at home that they are away. All teams seem to be far stronger at home, but the French teams take it to another level. When you run onto their pitch, you aren't just entering their house.

You are going in, cracking open their prized bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and putting your feet up on their new sofa. The first 20 minutes of the game are as physically intense and furious as rugby gets, regardless of the quality of the team you are playing.

The pride and passion of the players, however, is probably dwarfed by that of the fans. Whilst the players need to maintain a modicum of sanity in order to perform their duties, the fans have no such burden.

And boy do you know it! Many of the biggest clubs in France are situated in relatively small cities and towns, and the games are a huge event in those places. A crowd of 15,000 in Perpignan, for example, can represent almost a quarter of the population of the city.

And the populations in places such as Biarritz, Bourgoin and Bayonne are even smaller. The crowds treat away teams as a sort of invading force. The noise created by modestly-sized crowds of passionate French rugby fans is astounding.

Every ground has it's own brass band playing in a corner throughout the game, every mistake by the opposition is met by a wall of jeers and whistles, and, should the home pack get a rumble on, the noise reaches a level so loud that it is impossible to hear a teammate shouting at you from five feet away.

This community spirit, or 'esprit de clocher' makes playing in France perhaps the most exhilarating experience in rugby.

Away from the field, there are other issues to contend with when playing in France. One of these is the food. Whether it is something that is lost in translation, or whether it is a devious ploy to upset travelling teams, I'm not sure, but some of the food experiences I've had playing in France have been interesting to say the least.

One time, in Toulouse, our strength and conditioning coach asked a hotel to provide a pre-match meal of pasta, rice and chicken. Fairly standard fare. What greeted us in the team room was a large tray of white rice, a large tray of plain pasta and a large tray of medium-rare chicken drumsticks that were so small, they could have been carved off of humming birds.

Another time, one of our physio department requested a vegetarian alternative to the plain omelettes she had been served at the previous 3 meals. The waiter returned with a plate of five fried eggs. So much for the classic French cuisine!

Perhaps they just struggle to prepare 'healthy' food for fussy gluttons such as rugby players. It must be said, however, that the post-match food more than makes up for any shortcomings in the pre-match build up. You are usually greeted by an extensive buffet of cold meats, pate, cheese, baguettes and marvellous desserts. And a little wine, of course...

A slightly more welcome pre-match distraction can sometimes occur when playing in one of the big cities. It is common for the team bus to receive a police escort to the stadia in order to get through the traffic in time for kick-off. Police outriders on motorcycles ride ahead and use rather extreme tactics to carve a route.

Players crowd around the bus windows to watch eagerly as the police shout and scream at motorists, gesticulate vigorously, blare their sirens and often physically attack cars. They are quite happy to kick dents in the doors in order to move cars out of the way.

Compare this to a police escort to Twickenham for an England game. The British police riders stop at red lights, give way at roundabouts and aren't even allowed to use their sirens. Yet another reason for the French to sneer at 'les rosbifs'!

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