This is the Big One – at precisely 0630 hours this morning a two-man SOE unit [you’ll have to look it up] will be picked up and driven to the City airport in London to be flown into enemy-occupied France. Their do-or-die mission will be to provide support to the formerly-mighty Quins match day squad which, against all the odds, will be contesting the final of the European Challenge Cup with the behemoths of Montpelier at the Grand Stade de Lyon.
The heartening aspect of preparing to go on one of these trips is the familiarity of the experience and the unspoken camaraderie that only those who have been to hell and back many times before, in our case so many times that we have lost count, can acquire. There’s a certain shorthand in the preparatory work and the ticking off the huge check-list that you need to go through in advance.
Soon after Nigel arrived and I admitted him to my car park, we were back in the old routine over a cup of tea.
Flight and match tickets – check.
Hotel booking – check.
Research on how to get to the stadium [Do tram tickets have to be bought in advance? The fans’ website seems split on the issue, but Nigel produces a masterstroke in having already bought ours from the tournament organisers].
Food stops [Nigel has already pre-booked our restaurants for both today and tomorrow – the latter being the day of the European Champions Cup] including study of various maps of Lyon and working out just how far we shall have to walk, given our veteran status and various age-related conditions and ailments.
Trying to establish exactly where Lyon is to begin with might come in handy. I had assumed it was on the south-west coast, but Nigel assures me it’s somewhere in the middle, being some form of gateway to the Alps. (Ultimately it doesn’t matter – we’re just there to do a job and it could be anywhere).
Euros – check.
Credit cards – check.
Multi-coloured Quins outfit – me check, Nigel (being a London Irish supporter) no check, he’s going as a normal person.
And that was that.
Once the work was done we relaxed and went for a ‘night before the off’ meal at a local restaurant. We have to go to bed early because we have to be up at 0515 hours and, since I normally wake about 0100 hours, I won’t get much shut-eye anyway today.
Which brings me back to an earlier topic – personal ailments.
It’s a matter of principle – a special operational unit moves only at the speed of its slowest member. At some point before it departs, therefore, every team has to ‘have the talk’ – an honesty session in which every member lays out on the table their personal ‘issues’ that may hold the rest of the team up, just so we all know where we stand.
Every participant knows the score. In order to secure ultimate success for the mission – if the situation should demand it – he may have to be left behind, either with a bottle of whisky and a revolver, or else at the mercy of the enemy.
As it happens, on this occasion it soon becomes clear that advancing years have seen to it that everyone on the team has problems. My hip is playing up, but then Nigel’s now got an ankle problem so (unless we had been entered for the Invictus Games) we aren’t going to be breaking the 400 metres world record any time soon.
Contingency planning was required. I was first to put my hand up and say it – was there any chance, if we have time after arriving at our hotel and before having to leave to get to our pre-match restaurant and then afterwards the Stadium, that we could have a 30-minute afternoon nap?
This sort of thing never happened in the old days of the early Noughties, when we used to invade Murrayfield, Lansdowne Road, Thomond Park and the Stade de France in Paris in order to take on the world.
To this point – naturally – there had been no idle chat about wives, families, friends or foes. It had been all business. But when that was done off we went for our meal.
The relegation plight of London Irish – the EU Referendum – the perilous state of World Rugby – the state of health of a couple of our former regular fellow-tourists who were no longer physically up to it – and then it was suddenly back into the ‘Do You Remember When …?’ reminiscences of tours long gone by. Plenty of smiling and then giggling at some of the ‘incidents and accidents’ (as Paul Simon once sang on the Graceland album) that we surprised ourselves by still being able to drag up from our collective memory hard-drives.
Finally, back to my gaff. Sensing that it would be soon time to retire the Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey suddenly came out, the gossip and catch-up topics were at last addressed … and two hours later, having latterly discussed the complete redesigning of my entire property (if memory serves, with an unlimited budget) it was 11.37pm … and clearly time for bed.
[That was five hours ago exactly as I type, and I’ve been up again for two and a half of those. Ho hum, it’s going to be a long, long day …]