Ireland fans in Nantes last weekend.

Postcard from the World Cup: The green army have been immense

Ireland’s players have been blown away by the support over in France.

THE LAST TIME Ireland played at Stade de France in 2022, several of their players were taken aback by the scale of the place, the clamour of the crowd, and the sheer sense of big-match fever that fills the north Parisian cauldron on those heady nights.

That experience means they’re better prepared for what’s to come this Saturday night, but it will be different this time around. In 2022, the home French fans were deafening. This weekend, Ireland are set to have a far bigger crowd of their own roaring them on. There will be a strong South African horde too, but the Irish support will be vast.

So far, the travelling green army have been immense at this World Cup. The games against Romania and Tonga have been akin to home matches, albeit with a blast of La Marseillaise thrown in during each of them as the locals made their presence heard.

To be fair, it’s rare that Irish sports teams aren’t vocally supported when they’re on the road. Even all the way across the world in Japan four years ago, there was strong Irish support, with many coming from New Zealand and Australia to lend their voices.

But the proximity of France means that it has been on another level in this tournament. In Bordeaux for the Romania game, there were frustrations for many Irish fans amid the opening weekend teething issues. Some got into the stadium late after chaos on the tram lines, others struggled to get bottles of water and pints once they were in.

But they had 12 tries to cheer and the atmosphere at the final whistle was exhilarating as The Cranberries’ Zombie was blasted over the stadium speakers, prompting an all-in sing-along. It has become a Munster anthem in recent times but even the players from other provinces said they enjoyed Ireland adopting the tune.

Some people won’t like that a song about the Troubles is being sung in celebration after a sports game, but its chorus sure is catchy and it seems to be Ireland’s thing now, with a repeat after last weekend’s win over Tonga in Nantes.

bundee-aki-waves-to-fans-after-the-game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The Irish crowd at Stade de la Beaujoire was phenomenal. It can be easy to take this stuff for granted when the games come thick and fast, but there was a moment last Saturday evening when we paused on the steps up to the stands in Nantes and looked back at a huge mass of Irish supporters flooding through the gates below. The sun was starting to set and it was a little breathtaking to see just how many Irish people had travelled, spending their hard-earned cash, to cheer on their team.

There must have been more than 20,000 of them in Nantes, although a few Irish fans didn’t have to travel very far. We met Ballymena man Andrew Lytle the morning of the game. Having previously coached the likes of Luke Marshall and Andrew Warwick at Ballymena Academy, he moved to Nantes 12 years and now coaches an underage team in the local Stade Nantais club. French rugby doesn’t have a schools system like Ireland’s, with rugby exclusively played in clubs, but he explained how organised the pipeline is now and how every coach has to go through hours of courses to qualify. No wonder French rugby is so strong. 

World Cups are different and that applies to the support too. Although there were lots of French people in the crowd last weekend and Tonga had some strong patches, it was a majority of Irish fans. And even though it was in France, the atmosphere had a crazier, more fun edge to it than is often the case at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. There have been strong renditions of The Fields of Athenry from earlier in the games, while Dirty Old Town has had a couple of outings too.

It helps that World Cups bring Irish people from all corners of the globe. It’s not just a crowd from within Ireland. Some people save for years to make it to the global showpiece and that’s reflected in their intent to be part of an unforgettable time.

The French are good at the pre-match build-up, with excited encouragement of the crowd that’s not over the top. The way they read out the team sheets is great, with the announcer roaring each player’s first name before the crowd booms out their surname. 

The volume went to another level when Johnny Sexton slid in to break Ronan O’Gara’s record. And again, the fans stayed in their seats long after the final whistle, joining in with Zombie and applauding their team as they did a lap of the pitch to say thanks. Afterwards, the players spoke of how cool and mad they had found it all.

It was a fantastic weekend in Nantes, which is a lovely city based on this brief visit. As with everywhere in France, there’s no shortage of cafés, bars, and restaurants to sit outside and pause to take in life. The French are good at that. Their appreciation for food and drink is also something that rubs off.

If you’re ever in Nantes, Les Machines de l’Île is worth a look. Part of the project is a gigantic mechanical elephant that looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. With passengers aboard, it roams around the island roaring and spraying water from its trunk. Having never heard of it, it was quite a shock to round the corner and meet it face-on.

ireland-fans-enjoying-the-game Ballymena man Andrew Lytle, now a Nantes local. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The 9pm kick-off on Saturday, which Ireland have again this weekend, meant there was plenty of time to while away on matchday. For many, the thirst started to be quenched from early in the day but the mood in the stadium wasn’t boozy in a bad way. It was a party atmosphere.

Even this week back in Tours, where Ireland have their training base, there has been a noticeable influx of Irish supporters for the first time in this World Cup. Some of the players’ families are here, while several groups of fans who are over for a couple of games have also stopped by in this lovely little city.

All of this whets the appetite for Saturday night in Paris. As tends to be the case, Irish fans have snapped up thousands upon thousands of tickets. We’re hearing stories about some people managing to find tickets even in the last few hours. Everyone senses that this will be a special night.

Should Ireland pull off the win, it will certainly be among the greatest World Cup occasions Irish rugby has ever enjoyed. Another rendition of Zombie awaits for Andy Farrell’s men if they can do it.

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