An Ireland fan in Bordeaux. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
coupe de monde

Postcard from the TGV: An odyssey of a World Cup weekend

The choir-style anthems have proven to be deeply unpopular with supporters.

THE SUN IS rising to the right of the train as we speed past Lyon and on towards Paris. Another lovely day is upon France although, mercifully, it’s set to be less sweltering.

The sweat. Oh, the sweat. It has been a constant companion over the whirlwind last four days of a hectic, happy World Cup odyssey. With temperatures across France well above 30°C, it has been sweltering for players, fans, and media. The clammy discomfort is a small price to pay for what has been an epic opening weekend.

After a low-key build-up in Ireland’s training base of Tours, it was a thrill to hop aboard the TGV, the Train à Grande Vitesse or High-Speed Train, on Thursday and thunder west to Bordeaux, where Ireland were also moving ahead of Saturday’s clash with Romania.

We made straight for Ireland’s team hotel and absent-mindedly wandered in the back door, right into the heart of their cordoned-off private area. The Irish squad hadn’t actually arrived just yet but given the sheer level of security around them in France, this was something of an unintentional achievement. Before seeing anything of note, a World Rugby official whisked us away into the media pen out at reception.

After Ireland boss Andy Farrell named his team, it was into the city proper and what a beautiful city it is with its world-famous wine and countless historic monuments. It was only a shame that this visit to la Perle d’Aquitaine was so fleeting, but it’s one to add to your list if you haven’t been.

Over the past few days, it was abuzz with World Cup fever. Wales, Fiji, and Romania were all there too but the place turned green as Irish fans flooded into the city in their thousands. There really aren’t many sporting nations who travel like Ireland. On Saturday night after the game, the place was one big, boozy, good-natured Irish party. “Ils sont fou,” one local remarked, and we had to agree that the Green Army are a bit crazy. 

ireland-fans-celebrate-after-the-game The Irish fans took over Bordeaux. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The Airbnb delivered spectacularly. It was an old, peaceful, four-story Bordelais building close to the centre ville that had only two functioning apartments, the others being renovated. The host lived in the building too and after the tour, added that her two cats, Neo and Mel, like to wander at their ease, so would appreciate if the door of the apartment was left open throughout the day. One of Neo or Mel was invariably kipping on the bed any time we popped back to base.

It was interesting to see the apparent lack of intense interest in the French football team’s clash with Ireland on Thursday night as we watched from a great spot outside a pub on Rue Gambetta. Maybe it was just that the game felt like such a foregone conclusion but the locals weren’t too worked up about the 2-0 win. Even Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann seemed more enthused when they were at Stade de France for the rugby the following evening.

Friday morning meant getting back on the TGV and high-tailing it to Paris. Out at a rocking Stade de France, concerning wifi issues subsided just in time for kick-off on what was a wonderful occasion and a reminder of how hard it is going to be for anyone to beat les Bleus in this World Cup.

Their fans are superb, with an unparalleled array of songs and chants to choose. The depth of their catalogue is something other nations can learn from, so it was good to hear Irish fans cracking out a rendition of Dirty Old Town towards the end of the win over Romania. Variety is key.

It was a late night on Friday after a 9.15pm start to the match but we had to toast opening night before another early start on Saturday, taking the train back to Bordeaux and into the sea of green.

france-fans-celebrate-winning-as-new-zealand-players-look-on-dejected The French support on Friday was outstanding. Dave Winter / INPHO Dave Winter / INPHO / INPHO

Unfortunately, it proved to be a frustrating day for many Irish fans. Issues with the trams to the stadium – it seems a breakdown for one of the trains had a knock-on effect down the line – meant many were late getting out to Stade de Bordeaux and some missed the opening minutes of the match. There was also annoyance at how long it took to get a pint, while some supporters reported that they couldn’t get a bottle of water in the stadium. In that searing heat, the frustration is understandable.

Clearly, everyone will have learned from this opening weekend – World Cup organisers, the match venues, local authorities, and the fans. The strong advice is just to get to the stadium as early as possible rather than taking any chance at all.

Once they’d settled in, the Irish founds found their full voice and had plenty to cheer about. It’s a lovely stadium that manages to feel smaller and more intimate than you’d expect from a 42,000-capacity venue. The biggest ovation of the day was for captain Johnny Sexton as he came off after an excellent 66-minute return. Having watched Ireland rack up 12 tries, the Irish horde returned to the city to attack the night.

Sunday, on the move again. The early-morning Uber driver was, it transpired, an amateur philosopher and made the spin to the airport pass by in a flash. His father, an authoritarian who struggled to give compliments, recently passed away and things have been put in perspective. More than ever, this Morrocan man believes that we need to just slow down in life, take in the present moment, and not mindlessly worry about the future.

A short flight took us to Marseille and it was onto another absolutely crammed tram to the stadium. As the sweat covered all of us, a friendly Argentinian family tried to figure out what the hell had happened to the Pumas the night before against England.

Thankfully, the crush for fans getting into Stade de Marseille wasn’t repeated and there was a full house for the build-up to the Springboks’ win over Scotland. Once again, the choir-style national anthems caused much annoyance. They have been deeply unpopular and many people will be thrilled to hear that tournament organisers are to discuss cutting them at a meeting today.

south-africa-fans Springboks fans in Marseille. Steve Haag Sports / Steve Haag/INPHO Steve Haag Sports / Steve Haag/INPHO / Steve Haag/INPHO

Anyway, the Boks fans had cause to celebrate afterwards, but we were more concerned about getting to a good spot to take in a game you just knew was going to be the most thrilling of the weekend. So it proved as Fiji suffered a heartbreaking defeat to Wales.

The groans of agony reverberated around the hotel bar in Marseille as Semi Radradra knocked the ball on with the clock in the red. The Fijians will have frustrations about Matt Carley’s refereeing, for sure, but they will also know they still could and probably should have won that game. It was right there for the taking.

It was an absorbing finale to a weekend on which none of the underdogs managed to win in the end. France, Italy, England, Ireland, Australia, Japan, South Africa, and Wales all came through with wins, but Fiji and Chile in particular earned new fans.

And so, back on the TGV at the crack of dawn. Tours is the final destination, with Ireland having returned there yesterday, but there’s a detour up to Paris along the way. It’s worth stopping in to see the Tongans at their camp in the western suburbs of the capital as they get set to kick-off their campaign against Ireland.

Then it’s home to base in Tours for a debrief with the rest of the media crew. Before we know it, it’ll be another TGV to Nantes on Thursday, as we head into another big World Cup weekend.

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