The strangest thing about France? The smoking. Every second person has a fag in their mouth. It was quite a shock, coming from the place that pioneered the smoking ban, to see so many people suck gleefully on a cigarette as they went about their business. Something as trivial as professional rugby didn’t get in the way of this obsession with tobacco either.
Some of the funniest stories from my time in France involve smoking. I recall one home match against Toulouse which I watched from the stand, having been left out of the 23. After a narrow loss, I made my way around the stadium to the dressing room for the debrief. As I arrived, I spotted one of the Toulouse props standing outside a fire exit, topless and barefoot, puffing away happily as he conversed with some of the travelling support.
To give some context, this was in the middle of the main stadium concourse, with thousands of fans milling around. When children ran over to the bald giant for photos, he simply stuck the cigarette behind his back (it’s important to set a good example, after all). The little plumes of smoke that rose above his glistening head while he smiled for the camera made the scene look so ridiculous that it wouldn’t have been out of place in a ‘Carry On’ film.
One of my good friends at Grenoble was another front row. He is an enormous, powerful man who is in terrific shape now but back then was, as we might say diplomatically in Ireland, prone to carrying ‘a bit of condition’. The same guy didn’t drink but attacked the fags with such vigour that it appeared he was determined to make up for the lack of one vice by going twice as hard at another.
If you were lucky, you would get to stop at a good petrol station with a decent-sized shop on one of the many torturously long bus journeys to away games. When everyone else was stocking up on sugary snacks to make the second half of the trip a bit more bearable, one of the coaches would accompany the teammate in question around the back of the building and they would have a chat over a couple of cigarettes.
I found the concept of a professional athlete who wasn’t exactly the fittest lad, to put it mildly, smoking happily with his coach the day before a game to be utterly hilarious and worthy of a comedy sketch, but nobody else paid a blind bit of attention to it.
Where is this going, you might be wondering? The attitude to smoking is the perfect illustration of how French rugby still has one foot planted in the amateur era. Even at the top level, French rugby still doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s more relaxed. Players are given a wider breadth. You won’t hear me argue that smoking is a good habit for anyone, let alone a pro rugby player, but there was something refreshing about the fact that nobody really cared if someone did it.
I would pay good money to see a topless David Kilcoyne standing outside the entrance to reception at Thomond Park, puffing on a cigarette and chatting to fans after a European Cup game, but pictures of it would probably end up on the back page of this and every other paper in the country the next day. He would swiftly be summoned to IRFU headquarters for a disciplinary hearing and get fined a couple of months’ salary for bringing the game into disrepute.
In France, what you get up to in your spare time is irrelevant as long as you do the business on the pitch. You can go for dinner and a couple of pints on a Tuesday night without being paranoid that someone will take a picture or send an angry email to the club about it. This makes it a terrific place to play, particularly when you’re at the business end of your career, and particularly if you come from an Irish province with an intense, ‘always on’ environment.
And while there are many positives to this more nonchalant approach, it has undoubtedly been one of the factors that have seen many French clubs fail to deliver on the talent and wealth they have had in abundance for many years. The capacity for moments of magic was always there, but a combination of poor basics, mediocre conditioning and bad game plans meant a lot of teams in the Top 14 weren’t terribly attractive to watch.
There has been a drastic improvement in the last couple of years, however, and the league is now the standard-setter in European rugby. The most lucrative club competition in the world is producing players, teams and playing styles of a quality that puts the Pro 14 to shame. There is no better illustration of the evolution taking place in French club rugby than the final we are all looking forward to watching this weekend.
Toulouse, one of the best-known sides in world rugby, against La Rochelle, a relative non-entity until recent years, having only been promoted from the ProD2 in 2014. After a shaky period, Toulouse have rediscovered the form that made them the giants of European rugby they are. In addition to having the most exciting half back combination in the game today, they boast a front row that is as comfortable throwing passes and offloads as it is holding up a scrum, and the smallest but most feared attacker in Europe in Cheslin Kolbe.
La Rochelle are the new kids on the block, playing with a sense of abandon that has made many rugby people around Europe take a shine to them. Having initially turned heads in the competition with their KBA (keep ball alive) approach, La Rochelle showed in their demolition of Leinster that they have the right mix of power and pace, brawn and brain. Uini Atonio and Will Skelton on the tight head side of the scrum weigh a combined 300kg, and a 34 year old Victor Vito appears to be going through some sort of Benjamin Button experience, getting better and better each year.
In the centre, defending Levani Botia is essentially trying to tackle a car, and outside him the brilliance of my old teammate and good friend Raymond Rhule has been the source of much delight for the La Rochelle support since his arrival from Grenoble last year.
Regardless of who comes out on top this evening, I have a feeling this final will be the start of French rugby digging its claws into the Champions Cup and taking control of it for the foreseeable future. The national side have thrown down the gauntlet to the clubs for the last couple of years and now, it’s their turn to deliver.