Mid-October, over twenty years ago.
I near the end of a long and exhausting European trip. I search for the Holy Grail, in my case a place among the referees to be selected for the 1999 Rugby World Cup. In the past month I officiate in England, Wales and Portugal. Things go decently well. Still, a strong performance in my last game could be a real difference maker if I am to achieve my goal.
I arrive in southwestern France. In this region of the country, rugby is a religion, success of the local team extremely important to every town and city. Where else in the world, in the wake of a home defeat, would a daily newspaper choose a black border for its front page?
This passion certainly applies to Agen and Pau, both members of the national Top 14 competition. Separated by a ninety-minute drive on the A65, they are bitter rivals, each with a feverish fan base.
It starts to drizzle as I arrive in the late afternoon at Agen’s Stade Armandie. Nonetheless, a boisterous, capacity crowd is already on hand. Like gladiators, the players enter the arena to deafening roars. The wet grass glistens beneath the floodlights as the game begins.
Any hope of a fast, free flowing, entertaining contest is quickly dashed. Rumours of slick passing, graceful running, sumptuous offloads and relentless support play prove to be just that. Indeed, the much vaunted “French flair” is nowhere to be seen. In its place, the teams, each featuring a rugged forward pack no doubt equally well suited to dockyard brawls, engage in a vicious war of attrition. Overt physicality, endless set pieces, tactical kicking and search for field position are the order of the day.
The first half grinds by. 9-6 Agen, three penalty goals to two. After intermission, the pressure steadily ratchets up. Agen move farther ahead, 15-6. Then Pau, slowly gaining ascendancy, claw back within four points thanks to a well worked try. A few minutes remain. The crowd is in a frenzy, whistling and shouting as the visitors regain possession and resume the attack. I keep control, just, though decisions are constantly challenged, my handful of French phrases failing miserably to bridge the language barrier.
The cauldron reaches boiling point as Pau hammer away in the left corner. Now just seconds to go. Then, I penalize the attacking team, for not releasing the ball after a tackle. I am annoyed with myself, too quick on the whistle. It is one of those marginal calls that, in every sport, at all levels, too often goes the way of the home side. The ball is cleared to touch as the hooter sounds for full time. A 15-11 escape for Agen. The spectators either scream with delight or howl in dismay. The stewards close round and escort me to the changing room.
The assessor makes several comments. A veteran of these local derbies, he understands the difficulties, of operating under duress. He tells me his report will be favourable overall, even if my handling of the scrums was very poor. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Evaluation supposedly complete, I head upstairs to the club rooms for a meal. En route, I get a rude shock. At one end of the concourse, an assortment of green scarved Pau faithful wait behind a chain link fence. In the shadowy light, they furiously rattle the cage, angry faces contorting and spitting in my direction. They have not forgotten the last, controversial ruling, and make sure I know it.
“L’arbitre. Le Voleur. Le Voleur!” they hiss. Referee. Thief. Thief.
Post game formalities draw to a conclusion as midnight approaches. I return to the hotel and reflect on the events of the day. Slowly I relax, begin to doze as I contemplate the following morning and afternoon. It will be a welcome opportunity to totally switch off. To see the sights. Coffee and croissants, followed by a visit to the Agen Cathedral, a stroll along the famous Aqueduct, a gentle bike ride on the towpath beside the canal.
This reverie is broken by a sharp knock on the door. It is Jean-Luc, the local liaison. In broken English and via various hand signals, he informs me we must leave town without delay. Travel plans have changed. Apparently, I must get to Toulouse airport as soon as possible in order to catch a dawn flight back to London.
I change, hurriedly throw my clothes in a bag, blearily stumble down to the lobby. Outside, the engine is running, our car primed for departure. We pull away under cover of darkness. I feel like a thief in the night.
Perhaps those Pau fans, the ones hurling invective just a few hours before, knew more than they let on. At the very least, hopefully they can appreciate the irony of my own sudden getaway.