HAPPY NEW YEAR!
hope you all had a great festive period!
Lucy (@LucyBoyen) who is one of the ladies who runs #rugbyunited's @rugbyExChiefs account tweeted me before Exeter's recent trip to Toulon to ask if she could post a blog about her experiences. I said yes. Here it is! (easiest opening paragraph, EVER!)
(Apologies for Lucy.... for some reason, i cant add the pictures you included!)
A little about rugby.... A lot about friendship.
July 22nd 2013. The Heineken cup fixture dates are announced. The team on every Exeter Chiefs fan's lips: Toulon. Upon hearing the we were faced with a December double header, first up at Sandy Park on the 7th, followed by a tantalising away trip to the Stade Mayol on 14th, we all did the logical thing... Hit the internet for hotels and flights.
Fast forward 5 months and we're boarding the plane, dazed at how quickly the trip has come around but buoyed by the performance put in by the boys Saturday past, losing narrowly to the European champions 9-14. A bonus point loss against Toulon? We'll take that, thank you. We all know it'll be a cracking weekend whatever happens in the rugby. How can it not be, with over 1000 travelling fans?
Toulon is a relatively small town in the Cote D'Azur, South France. It’s wedged between mountains and the sea. The perfect back drop for a dream holiday, or fixture. The team itself almost the complete opposite to its opponents. Toulon boasting 738 caps in its starting XV to Exeter's 38. Toulon a collection of the great rugby players from across the globe which rightly earns them the title of Galácticos, Exeter with its eyes fixed firmly on young, home grown talent.
This trip was to be my first taste of an away European fixture and I can honestly say I've never been made to feel more welcome. Buses driving around town with 'Welcome Exeter' on the front, mixed with very friendly fans stopping every five minutes to take photos and shout the 'Pilou Pilou'
Queue Friday night. A taste of Toulon before the game. We like to sing, what better way to warm up the vocal chords. Having been told we MUST visit the Toulon supporters bar, and it being right opposite the hotel, we head over, the Tomahawk Chop in full flow, only to be told it's closed and that we've crashed a function. Outcome the cameras so we do what comes naturally to us, Chop louder (whilst pleading with the barman for drinks!) out comes something a lot more special. The Heineken Cup. It turns out we've crashed a sponsorship party, and they've brought it out to show off. I mean, you would, wouldn't you, if it was just lying around. I can now say I've done something that very few people have done: I've held the Heineken Cup. And it felt good.
Previous to flying over a few of the Tribe had received a tweet from a bar called 'Corsaire' saying we were more than welcome to drink there if we so wished. It'd be rude not to, so over we go, after being swiftly ushered out of Toulon's supporters bar and the Cup taken swiftly from us. The bar already has several Chiefs and Toulon fans in it, and singing ensues. Our Chop to their Pilou Pilou. We aren't even at the game yet and I've already lost my voice. This will never do. The Toulon fans remind me a lot of us, they are tribal, they like to sing and make noise, a lot, and their friendly. Like, really friendly. Any of them will come over and talk to you, mostly to tell you Jonny Wilkinson is theirs and you can't have him. I lost count of the amount of times I told them he was actually English, and would never win them a World Cup. But it's clear he's been embraced by them and they treasure his skill and gamesmanship just as much as we do. They know how it feels to rise against expectation and embrace all the glory that comes with it, much like we do, but under different circumstances.
Saturday. Game day. The weather is glorious over the Stade Mayol, we can hardly believe that it is December. The team sheet for Toulon is impressive. We are sad to see Jonny on the bench, but sing for him anyway. Our team sheet much as we would expect, though with the very noticeable absence of trusty fly half Gareth Steenson, not in the squad after a crushing tackle with Basteraud the previous week. In his place the 20 year old, Junior World Championship winning Henry Slade. Arguably the biggest game of his career. He shone admirably after replacing Steenson 20 minutes in to the previous fixture, showing maturity and skill beyond his tender years. He teams up with Jack Nowell, Dave Ewers, Ben Moon and Sam Hill, all products of our academy.
The game itself was pretty special. Personally, I thought we played very well considering where we were and who we were up against. Academic now, but 'that' try given when was actually forward the difference between no points and a losing bonus. Exeter have definitely shown over the two fixtures that they are once again a team with ambition, desire and the ability to take the game to the best teams in Europe and leave with their heads held high. The running problem over the previous weeks seem to be giving away penalties in the break down. If we can solve that problem and continue with our strong defence while continuing our wide expansive running game where every player plays like a winger, we will be a force to be reckoned with in the second half of the season.
After the game and some food, a text goes round: “Players are in Calypso bar” and before you know it, almost every Exeter Chiefs fan, player and member of coaching staff are rammed into a tiny bar along the seafront. The Chop rings out, loudly, led by the players giggling to themselves. They can hardly believe the fixture themselves and have been looking forward to it all season. It's a special moment for us all. There’s nothing better than being thanked for making the journey and your support over and over. I felt quite sorry for the owners of the bar, they certainly weren't ready for having the bar drunk dry.
If another fan were to ask me if they should go to Toulon on an away trip my answer would be simple: you'd be an idiot not to. Not only is the stadium and the team something special, the fans are incredible and the town is so, so welcoming. It is not just a place to meet opposition fans, but reinforce friendships within your own circle. My voice is still recovering, but the support for my team and love for the Chiefs family is here to stay.