Bottle of Red
It is mid afternoon in Bort-les-Orgues. A tiny commune in central France, population 4,000, it keenly awaits the annual Fete du Rugby. The cafes and bars are festooned with large, gold coloured posters. Bold, black printing provides the necessary information.
Dimanche, Aout 17, 1986. 6pm. Stade Toulousain vs Canada.
The stadium nestles in the shadow of “les Orgues”, the old volcano that looms above the town. The pitch is in immaculate condition, as befitting the arrival of Toulouse, the national champions. They select thirteen French internationals and are considered the best club team in the world.
Our “Canada” team is not technically the full national side. Instead, it is a curious but hungry mix of established capped players, some fringe hopefuls and a handful of others. At our BC base, in the months leading up, we practice ferociously in advance of the opportunity of a lifetime.
I am out early for warmup. Three opposition players approach, casually passing a ball back and forth. All must be front rowers I think, as they are squat and powerful, with thick necks and chests. And heavy-duty pistons for thighs.
The trio run by. I gulp. The man in the middle is no prop or hooker. Rather, he is wearing #10, the position I play. He is the fly half, the “ouverture”. I have read about him. That he is the principal architect of Toulouse’s many recent successes.
Above his number is printed Rouge-Thomas. Like mine, a hyphenated last name. But there the similarities end. He is short, maybe 5’9”, and weighs in at well over 90kg. Coarse, black stubble frames a hard, cruel face. Our eyes lock. His expression suggests I will be in for a long eighty minutes.
The game begins. Our pack stands tall against the Stade forwards, scrumming, rucking and tackling like maniacs. A strong wind is in our favour, and we use it well. It helps us gain huge chunks of territory. The hours on the practice field pay immediate dividends as we engineer two slick tries. We convert one, then add a penalty goal. Toulouse are not to be denied and score a try of their own. To the surprise of many, it is 13-6 Canada at half time.
Like a bear now fully awake after a winter’s hibernation, Toulouse dominates the second frame. The crowd bays for blood. Gallic pride is on the line. Our defensive line holds for long periods, but finally the dam breaks. Fortunately, the conversion is missed. As is an even easier penalty goal minutes later. We remain in front, just. 13-10.
Then, the magic moment. Against the run of play, we recover a Toulouse fumble near midfield. Two quick passes and we are away. Down the right and within metres of the line. One surge, a second, and then a third. And we are in for a tally. 17-10.
Stung, Toulouse go immediately back on attack. But they now need two scores to win. Not enough time remains, and they know it.
The final whistle blows. We are smiling, hugging each other until it hurts. Eyes glisten. There are tears and laughter, euphoria and such a deep sense of satisfaction. One of those all too rare days when preparation, passion and performance come together in perfect harmony.
As a postscript, later that night we each receive a gift, a bottle of red wine. The wine is supplied and specially labelled by the Beziers club. Archrivals of Toulouse, they have enjoyed our victory almost as much as we have.
I keep that bottle for a long time. I finally open it on New Years Day, 2006. The wine has turned vinegary. But I still pour myself a glass. And I drink it happily, fortified by the powerful memories of a sweet, unforgettable August evening twenty years ago.