Where I live in south-west London there is a natural preponderance of Harlequins and London Irish fans. The rugby community being what it is, despite the bitter rivalry between us, the ‘craic’ is more important than the relative fortunes of the clubs at any particular time. This is just as well, since in recent times London Irish have decamped to play their home matches at the Reading’s Madejski Stadium and tend to occupy a basement position in the Premiership.
From time to time a group of us embark upon a ‘boys tour’ to some foreign field in pursuit of spectating and drinking. When Quins were relegated to the Championship in 2005, six of us set off to Cornwall for the away game with Cornish Pirates and had such a great time that a tradition was born. Since then, almost exclusively following Quins games as it happens, we have made ‘lost weekend’ trips to Galway, Limerick, Paris and Cardiff, to name but four.
A breakthrough of sorts came in 2009 when, six months before the event, one of our number bought tickets to the 2009 Heineken Cup Final at Murrayfield in the absurd hope or expectation that either Irish or Quins would get that far in the competition. They didn’t, of course, but – rather than waste the tickets – we decided to go anyway and discovered for ourselves that which tens of thousands had probably worked out years beforehand, i.e. that going ‘on tour’ to the Heineken Cup Final was a ritual to be enjoyed by all, irrespective of whether your team was involved. And perhaps irrespective of whether a rugby match was even taking place …
Two things feature on a rugby trip of this nature which cannot easily be conveyed by the written word, (by which I mean) in a manner that guarantees justice will be done to what is being described.
The first is the sense of camaraderie that binds the tourist team together and the second is the long, long list of humorous and/extraordinary incidents that occur on every trip. It’s definitely a case of the old adage that you ‘really had to have been there’ (in order to appreciate the gag).
Which is why – you’ll be relieved to learn – I’m not going to bore you here with a haphazard re-telling of some of our group’s ‘greatest hits’ that come filed under the above headings.
A fortnight ago, our ‘Tour Leader’, who now lives in Somerset, called me out of the blue to announce that months ago he had bought four tickets to the Heineken Cup Final to be played at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on the evening of Saturday 24th May.
A ‘call to arms’ was issued and the opportunity to see Saracens play Toulon – including what will probably be Jonny Wilkinson’s last appearance in the UK before he retires – was too good to miss.
Three of us locally have since declared our determination to tour, each at the cost of some degree of domestic strife, and are currently looking forward to the expedition, now only just over a week away.
Yesterday Tour Leader, whose characteristics include a willingness to delegate which is tempered by a deep concern as to whether his chosen lieutenants will then ‘deliver’, rang to check my state of readiness.
I was able to inform him that my car was now repaired and serviced and that I had a provisional time early on said Saturday morning (0630 hours) agreed with the two tourists I was bringing with me to Somerset, where we would pick him up en route to the Principality’s capital.
Hearing that I was planning to plot his postcode coordinates into my on-board vehicle sat-nav system, Tour Leader announced that he would also send me a Word document containing written directions as a back-up.
“By the way …”, he added, “… whatever you do, don’t give Sandy responsibility for reading you the directions as you’re driving. He’s hopeless. After that debacle in Paris [in 2008, after Quins had beaten Stade Francais in front of 80,000 fans in a Heineken Cup group stage match, Sandy had pleaded to be allowed to lead us to a favoured bar he knew, got lost … and, when he eventually ‘found’ it, it was boarded up, with a nearby local advising that said premises had been closed for twenty years], I sacked him from navigation duties permanently. If you remember, he sulked for the rest of the trip, but I’m quite clear about it – when it comes to navigation, he’s a complete liability …”
Hmmn … as I’ve tried to hint by my piece today, the anticipation always mounts as another tour approaches.