(October 14th, 2007)
“I DON’T want anyone yelling ‘come on’,” says Arnaud, the owner of the bar La Maro 20 in Pezenas, a Renaissance town in the heart of rugby-playing France, when I walk in wearing my England rugby shirt. On the large screen they are showing the South Africa v England group match. “Great game,” shouts the only Frenchman yet to be seated. The rest are outside smoking.
As kick-off approaches the bar fills up. There is an interview with Jonny Wilkinson. The assembled crowd growls. “He won’t make it through the first half,” says Olivier, who, despite being the father of my children’s best friends declared a few days earlier that I was “dead”.
Integration can only go so far. In the seven years that we have lived in the south of France, I have tried as far as possible to mix with the locals. Our children go to the village school. I shop in the markets. I even supported France in the football World Cup last year. But here, tonight, in a bar surrounded by French men in blue rugby shirts humming the Marseillaise, I have decided it’s time to show my true colours.
“Come on England,” I yell as the whistle goes. “Come on Jonny! We love you!”
A few of the locals look surprised even shocked. I have always played down my English roots. But this rugby World Cup has brought out a jingoism I never thought I had.
It is no surprise to me that the emblem of the French rugby team is a coq. This past week seems to have brought out the rooster in every French man I meet. “France has never lost a tournament it has hosted,” gloats a local wine maker. “Anyway, we’ve beaten the masters, you lot are chicken-feed.”
As a resident I have the right to switch allegiance. Some have told me I should be supporting France because the players are more attractive. My French girlfriends are getting very excited about Sébastian Chabal. He’s the animal-human hybrid whose last bath was probably during the last World Cup. Even the so-called pretty boy of French rugby, Frédéric Michalak, has had his head shaved so he looks like a rugby ball.
None of these characters compares to our Jonny Wilkinson. He is prettier than the French 15 put together. He looks pretty nervous too, but that is probably because he is worried that if he gets caught in a ruck he is more likely to be snogged than shoeed.
“I’ve seen enough,” declares my husband after the first England try. The French have gone very quiet. A rare and satisfying sound.
Then it goes horribly wrong. A penalty and the mood turns. The French crowd looks to see the reaction of the English supporters. The upper lips remain stiff.
Another penalty and they’re ahead. How best to show our support for our boys? Any attempt to sing Swing Low is quickly stifled by the Marseillaise. We are slightly outnumbered. I’m with my husband, my friend Mary, her sister and one Irishman. But he’s supporting the French. Jonny misses a penalty.
“How about streaking through the bar?” I suggest to Mary. “You look more like Erica Roe than me. We need to create a diversion, break their concentration.” I am a firm believer in the crowd willing the team on. This is what I did at the quarter-final and it seemed to work.
Then suddenly the battle turns our way and most of the French go outside for a cigarette or seven. “Without Jonny you have no team,” grumbles one as defeat looms. “We should have cut him in two and now it’s too late.”
The French are no longer interested in rugby, they’ve gone home back to their cheese. The bar’s owner Arnaud Maro Laget, who plays No 8 in his rugby team, is gracious in defeat, saying well played and how we deserved it. He doesn’t mean it, obviously. “Now you need to win,” he says. “We want the cup to stay in Europe. Good luck. And, by the way, we’re not open next weekend.”