Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Marseille and Me

The story of a Munster fan’s overall experience of the last-ever Heineken Cup semifinal, by Michelle Tobin

toulon munster tickets

Monday 28 April

Waking up this morning, it felt like I’d had the strangest dream, with an ending that just didn’t feel right. When I looked around and saw my Munster jersey on the wash basket and my passport on the floor beside my bag, it all came rushing back. Alas it wasn’t a dream.

If you’ve started reading this expecting a critical or passionate match review I’m sorry to disappoint you. There are hundreds of articles on the game already, and to be honest, until I can bring myself to watch it back I’m in no position to write properly about the game, it’s true that you never see it fully when you’re in the stadium. I’ll get back to the stadium later, as this post is about the experience, the trip, the invasion of Marseille.

At times of big games, the reminder that I live in Dublin, and not in my native Munster comes loud and clear. The pictures of Limerick and Cork, of Shannon airport all highlight that I’m missing out on a little something. My “choice” of course but there’s always a “wish I was there” feeling..though of course this time I was going to be where it mattered on game day, in Stade Velodrome with thousands of other Munster fans. Still, as I arrived at and departed from Dublin airport, it was a little disappointing that on a weekend when at least 5 dedicated flights departed to Marseille, there wasn’t even a sign. More disappointing was that the sole comment on our Aer Lingus flight was “as a Leinster supporter, I’m delighted to see so many Toulon fans on board today”. Humour from the captain, sadly never followed by a good luck message.

Having considered the packages for the weekend and day trip charters, the lovely @Cathreonine and I had opted for a day trip taking flights put on by Aer Lingus for the occasion. There are pluses and minuses for doing the independent trip versus the guaranteed transfers etc but in this case it worked well. A bus into the central station and public transport from there, easily done. A lovely touch as we boarded the metro, an announcement over the tannoy “We would like to welcome all the Munster fans travelling with us today”. It appears we had to go to France to get such a welcome.

With about four hours to kick off, we opted to go to the MRSC (Munster Rugby Supporters Club) meeting point pub closest to the stadium, O’Brady’s pub. En route we had to walk through hordes of Toulon fans, be passed by their open top bus, see the businesses decked out in the black and red, all of a sudden, the realisation of what it must be like to be a visiting fan in Thomond, hit home. We would be a minority, a vocal and passionate one but for all the talk of invading Marseille, we were never going to rival Toulon, just thirty minutes down the road. And so, arriving in O’Brady’s was a much needed respite. 95% of the crowd sported Munster jerseys, new and old, red and navy and a couple of other former alternates. Bank of Ireland was clearly outnumbered by Toyota, the older the jersey the bigger the credit in many quarters.

Here in O’Brady’s we passed a few hours, had a few social beverages and shared the craic, and our journey stories with so many wonderful Munster fans, we laughed and chatted and the time just flew. The Toulon open topped bus had the pub as a stop and with each arrival the cries of “Munster, Munster” and renditions of the Fields rang out and indicated that we had a small fortress in a narrow street in Marseille, far from Munster.

We had been invited, through the MRSC, to share this bus and travel with the Toulon Fans to the stadium but with no evidence of it sticking to the every 15 minutes schedule we decided to walk to the stadium, about 20 minutes up the road. Getting to the stadium wasn’t a problem, getting to right entrance….now that was a different matter.

It reminded me of following the route signs at the Aviva to the purple entrance, the signs say one direction but to be honest, you’d get there in half the time if you went the other way. Though in the Aviva’s favour, at least there are signs. Some kindly gendarmes directed a group of Toulon and Munster fans to the best way to Ganay Tribune, our entrance. I suppose it’s a big ask to have permanent signs for a stadium that’s largely under construction but a few temporary signs would have gone a long way, like the long long walk we had before we finally found the dusty track leading to the stadium.

I was surprised at how close we got to the stadium before tickets were checked, just one check point at the entrance, nothing on the approaches, testament probably to the stadium not being finished. Did I mention the dusty track? Shoes will never be the same! Lots and lots of steps and we were finally in our section. Thanks to the kindly people in our row who recognised that we had friends further down the row and offered to move into our seats so that we could all sit together. Still it was a Munster block and we were among friends. Having been isolated at the recent Rabo game in the Aviva, it was amazing to be part of a Munster section, united in voice, though totally outnumbered in the stadium.

Stade Velodrome will be an amazing stadium when it’s finished, here’s hoping they pay more attention to location of match clocks and scoreboards at that time, their visibility wasn’t great and we were dependent on the video screen for this info. The atmosphere, the acoustics, the design, are something special, it will be one of the great stadia. Maybe we’ll be back in future years when it’s completed, who knows.

The stadium was a sea of red, though mostly red and black. Thanks to the MRSC there were thousands of Munster flags in among them, again mostly in blocks, there’s safety in numbers after all. With ten minutes to go, Cara O’Sullivan took to the pitch and led the Munster fans in our adopted anthem “Stand Up and Fight”. We didn’t want it to end; we all sang our hearts out, full of hope and belief.

The game happened. We shouted, we sang, we cheered, we hugged, we clapped, and in the end we cried. We asked a lot of our players and they really gave their all, the heartbreak was evident in their faces and bodies too, this was a game that we could have won, despite all the pundits writing us off, we were so close but fell at the final hurdle. It almost felt harder to take than sitting in Twickenham in 2000 when we lost that awful final to Northampton, we could have done it.

The vast majority of Toulon fans we met after the game were wonderful. Hugs, kisses, appreciation for the performance, sympathy for our hurt. My message to them all, please beat Saracens in the final. That would make it all just a little bit easier to bear. Of course there were a few who wanted to gloat but even then it was in a friendly way.

Rather than pass an hour of post mortem back in O’Brady’s it was back to the airport, another time a teleporter would have come in handy. Tired, and drained, physically and emotionally, this was a journey that would have been nice to fast forward. And in a way it was. Arriving at the security area in the airport we went to go through the general section and were redirected to the VIP fast track security, a beautiful touch from Marseille airport to anyone travelling for the match. I almost cried, again.

The final heartbreak was seeing the players in the departure lounge as they waited for their delayed flight home. They sat around in small groups, looking dazed, and disappointed and despondent. We all felt their pain. Sitting on our own flight, the contrast with the jovial, lively atmosphere of the morning flight was huge. Quiet, tired, disappointed, you’d hardly believe it was largely the same people…and a Rabbi. I guess he was lucky we’d lost, I’m not sure he would have enjoyed a plane full of partying Munster fans!

With a delayed departure (though nowhere near the four hour delay suffered by those heading to Cork) it was 1am by the time we landed it Dublin. A long day, a special day, an expensive day, a tough day but a day I’m glad to have spent, to have been there. Thanks to everyone who made it special, the people we met, the players who tried, and all the people back home that sent good wishes to the team. As a committed Twitter user, I was blown away by the messages I got from fans of other provinces over the weekend. Particularly memorable was the Leinster fan who asked if they could borrow my blue Munster jersey should we make it to the final, oh how I would have loved to have handed it to her ;)

Munster will be back, there’s silverware left to fight for this season, the final bell is yet to toll. May the best team win!

PS…Toilets! Yes I have to mention them because it was a day of strange experiences. From walking in on a guy in the ladies in Marseille airport, to the long unisex queue for the loos in O’Brady’s, I might have seen what was about to happen but no. Sports stadia never have enough ladies loos right? Stade Velodrome is the only major sports or arts venue where I’ve seen massive queues for the gents, none for the ladies, and the lads unashamedly ducking into the ladies rather than get caught short. Wonders will never cease!


Paulie_thumb[1]Bio: Michelle (@corkseashell) is a passionate rugby fan, and far too prolific tweeter.

A Munster gal living in Dublin with a mountain of half-written blog posts languishing on her desktop, there simply are not enough hours in the day.

She no longer looks like her picture but cannot let go of #ThomondThursday

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