This week is exciting for me as on Saturday it will be the 10th Heineken Cup Final that I've been to. The first one was a snap decision, before the event had become as big as it is in the rugby world. The week before AJP and I decided to take our boys G and W, down to Cardiff to watch the Tigers have a tilt at beating Munster to retain the Cup. The Milennium Stadium is possibly unique in the world, as it is bang in the centre of the city, with surrounding pubs and restaurants, and has a retractable roof. Both mean that the atmosphere is possibly more intense than anywhere else. Fans are not stressed by getting to the ground - once you are in the city centre, there's no queues for transport, and you can leave it a decent time before making your way to the ground (usually crossing the road from the Gatekeeper, the Angel, or St Mary's Street.)
The Final itself is best remembered for the hand of Back. Tigers were comfortably the better team, but could not pull away from Munster, and with minutes left on the clock, it was still 15-9. Munster attacked and won a scrum near the posts. If they scored from this, then Ronan O Gara would convert, meaning that Munster would win 16-15. The Tigers scrum was strong, but very few scrums go against the head, so there was a real threat. As Stringer, the Munster scrum half who doubles as a model for a leprechaun, put the ball into the scrum, Back, (Flanker) knocked his hand or the ball, and it was enough for Tigers to get a shove on, gain possession and clear the lines. Whilst it could be seen on the main screen, and Stringer was apopleptic, the referee called time, and Tigers had retained the Cup. Munster fans were gracious afterwards, but were obviously aggrieved at the injustice. On the balance of play, and the fact that incidents like this go on in every game of rugby, including when Munster play their slowing the ball down tactics, then that was the end of it.
We met up with friends after the game in the Vodka Bar. The boys loved it. They went round the corner to 'Chip Alley' as Caroline Street is known to the locals. Nearly every shop is a chip shop, and by closing, it is awash with chip papers, half eaten kebabs, and polystyrene trays. They reported back on the 'tarts' they had seen there. (How do 12 year olds know about such things?) When they got back into the Bar, they saw Alouette for possibly the first time, along with actions. I am not sure mothers should be present, when their sons see their first pair of real boobs, but the verse around 'saggy boobs' produced a pair from a game Tigers fan. The smile on W's face couldn't be wiped off.
The following year the final was in Dublin, where Toulouse, the powerhouse of European rugby won their first title, against Perpignon. This time we went with DT and JT, and my parents, (handy baby-sitters) for the Saturday night. Lansdowne Road was at that time undeveloped at both ends leading to a wind tunnel effect. Even though it was late May, it was freezing. Toulouse had the wind behind them in the first half and scored 19 unanswered points and in the second half, Perpignon scored 17 to Toulouse's three. There was a very handsome Perpignon fan, who DT decided was married. 'How do you know that he's married?' 'Because his wife's sent him out in a hand knitted cardigan and with a big base drum - that will stop him pulling,' came the reply.
When we went out that night, every bar was showing the Eurovision Song Contest, and people were watching it avidly, cheering every Irish point. We found this incredulous, as Brits we found the whole thing a farce, (and a crime against music). So there you go. The criticism the Europeans give the UK that we don't take it as seriously as they do, even though we are a major funder is true.
The drama in the following year, held at Twickenham, was the bouncing ball in the corner that Rob Howley dived on to score in the last play of the game, and Poitrenot left to go dead, to win the game for Wasps, and prevent the game going to extra time was dramatic, made more so by the fact that it went to the Video referee who seemed to take an age to give it, and of course, The English Hex over the French in sport continued. The grounds weren't full yet, but each year were getting fuller and fuller. Toulouse couldn't do what the Tigers had done two years earlier and retain the Cup, but they were on of the names that was beginning to appear regularly. After the game, we went up to Covent Garden, to watch the street performers. The lads loved this, especially the Chaplinesque clown, and when N threw a coin at one of them and hit the wooden box the performer was preparing his props in, causing him to leap a mile with the noise (it was like a gun going off), they were in pieces.
Today I chose Lucky Man - The Verve, as going to 10 Finals, I've got to consider myself lucky.