By Tom Crosby
The 2007 World Cup
One week before I took off for France my early prediction was of a French world cup victory. Optimism about the US Eagles winning 2 matches faded with a pre-world cup loss to a weak Munster side. There was little hope of beating England on October 8th, so Oct. 12th in Montpelier against Tonga was the do-or-go-home-winless match for the USA. There was not much hope for later matches against Samoa and South Africa.
I had been struggling with bronchitis for 4 months before leaving for France – possibly the result of trailer living and post-Katrina conditions in New Orleans. At one point the doctor said I was on the edge of pneumonia and a hospital stay.
September 11th, 2007 Colchester, England: USA v England
I arrived in England in time to read about the French humiliation at the hands of Argentina. The Times was predicting an English triumph over the USA Eagles – described as “chunky and unfancied” by the English scribes. The next day The Sunday Times was treating the 28-10 (England-USA) as a loss for the home team. I watched the USA’s marvelous effort in the living room of my wife’s sister’s husband in Colchester, England. He was even impressed with the Yanks’ effort.
We left England to settle into an efficiency with a loft in the French village of Leucate. Although small (2,000 or so residents) it had a very nice rugby stadim. I watched the French first side Toulouse play Perpignan in the village while we were there.
My earlier world cup predictions of a French victory were a shambles after Argentina spanked them in Paris in the opening match. Unless France could remake their side and find some commitment to match that of even the 2nd tier teams like Namibia this was going to quite an embarrassment for the French.
September 12th, 2007 Montpellier, France: USA v Tonga
On occasions like this, the hand of fate is infalible. As long time friend from my Tulane University rugby days, John Howe, pulled into the car park at the Montpelier train station, we were moving our own car into the same lot. We all hopped the tram to the Mosson Stadium and had pre-match beers and pizza from a patisserie. John’s French friend Christian informed us that beers in the stadium could be 7 Euros (11 dollars) because the IRB was taking a healthy cut to support rugby in poor countries. It turned out beers were 5 Euros and we drank to Namibia and Georgian rugby. Security at the stadium was severe and haphazard. My wife had her small but lethal bottle of Oil of Ulay confiscated and just about everyone was body searched. I walked through without even having my ticket checked. The USA play was hapless as security. After two minutes, Tonga’s scrum easily pushed over for a try. The USA looked like a B-side college team as fly half Hercus held any good ball way too long before passing, running into Tongan defense, or kicking it away. The sun was strong. The day was hot. The crowd was decidedly pro-Tongan. At half-time, we moved from crowded lower level seats in the end zone to midfield seats in the upper deck. A nice breeze and plenty of space with a view over the countryside as well as the pitch made the second half much more pleasant. The USA played the second half like they had the will to win. But continuing disorder in the backs left a gaping hole that the Tongan Tonka Trucks rolled through for another try to seal it. As the Tongans took a victory walk to a standing ovation around the pitch, the USA Eagles – heads down – slumped off the pitch knowing the previous 80 minutes represented their best shot ‘at a 2007 World Cup victory. After more beers and pizza in Montpellier, we bid farewell to John and Christian. My wonderfully sober wife, Carolyn, drove us back to Leucate. Mark Bielski, another long time friend from the Tulane days, and I headed to a local pub to watch Italy v Rumania. We had just settled into our beers when the bartender switched the channel to the France v Scotland soccer match. We sauntered – which is French for staggered – through the village until we found another bar with the game on a wide screen TV. We sat back in comfortable chairs with a carafe of local wine and savored the wine, the match, and a fantastic day. Viva le Coupe du Monde !!
September 17th, 2007 Montpellier, France: Tonga v Samoa
The sunrise drive from Leucate to Montpelier took you through grape vine covered hills and tiny southern France villages. We parked at the stadium ticket office by 10 only to find it didn’t open until noon for the 2 p.m. match. We discussed coming back for the Sept 30 South Africa v USA match. Carolyn had become a rugby fanatic in the last week and an adoring fan of the chiseled jaw, golden haired South African fullback, Percy Montgomery. September 30 coincided with our wedding anniversary and the 100 Euro tickets that were available would be a wonderful present for us both. After we strolled the narrow streets around Comedy Square and soaked up the sunshine and rugby enthusiasm in Montpelier, we hopped the tram back to the stadium. The ticket line was about 10 people deep and moved quickly. We found out we couldn’t buy the Sept 30 tickets until the Friday before the match and that we couldn’t use our Visa (official preferred credit card of the World Cup) to buy tickets. After paying cash for the tickets and buying 2 official world cup t-shirts with our visas’ we settled down for freshly grilled sausage po-boys and half liters of Heineken draft. The buses carrying the Samaon and Tongan teams rolled by to the cheers of the gathering crowd. The pre-game video was fun with highlights of previous World Cup matches, Samoan and Tongan World Cup histories, and interviews with the team captains. As the teams came out to warm-up, the p.a. system started playing the New Orleans tune Iko Iko. It was an intense match right from the the hakas. The Tongan team went first. The captain charged across the midfield line and after their haka, he led his fellow Tongans to the midfield line, forcing the Samoans to do their haka a safe distance back. Tonga hung on to a 4 point lead in the final minutes with only 13 players. The crowd – initially split between Tongan and Samoan supporters – was eventually almost totally pro Tongan thanks to the referee’s careless sending off of Tongan players. After warm congratulations between Tongan and Samoan players, the Tongans took 2 walks around the pitch to the standing ovation of the crowd. The Tongan coach then led the Tongan team out again (a few players carrying their children) to stretch and for what one could imagine to be a talk on what it felt like to pull off the upset. They knew they were one upset away from being the first Tongan team to ever reach a World Cup quarterfinal.
Once safely back in Leucate, we wandered to El Chupito Pub to watch France dismantle Namibia.
While hanging around outside the stadium before the Tonga v Samoa match, I saw a poster advertising an international veterans’ tournament around Montpellier on Sept. 22nd. World Cup fever inspired me to whip myself into shape and try to pick-up with a team. The first 2 days of training didn’t go too well. Since leaving New Orleans in June, I had suffered with a respiratory problem which had tenaciously clung to my lungs through 3 antibiotic treatments. After 5 minutes of a gentle jog, I was coughing and hacking like a man with a 30 year two pack a day habit. Last night at El Chupito Pub, while watching Scotland dismantle Romania 42-0, the owner (former rugby player for Lyon) suggested I try one of the region’s thermal baths. We drove toward Spain into a valley of the Pyrenees in search of a miraculous cure from some magical waters. The scenery was spectacular and all the small French villages we drove through had signs proclaiming they celebrate 2 rugbies ¬(13’s and 15’s). Unfortunately when we arrived at Amelie-Les-Bains, the place was heaving with sickly folks seeking the magical waters. We couldn’t even find a place to park. I remained on the injured reserve list for Saturday’s tourney. I hope to at least observe a little of the tournie before finding a pub to watch Saturday’s matches.
September 26th, 2007 Toulouse, France: Portugal v Romania
The TGV (fast train) had just started picking up speed as it left Toulouse. The previous evenings battle between Romania and Portugal for the bottom of pool C was a gratingly slow match. The combined number of back line movements for both sides could be counted on one hand without using your thumb. Eventually the Romanian scrum wore down the Portugese. If it weren’t for the rugby loving spirit of the Toulouse people, a beautiful stadium with a half-roof to keep the drizzle off, and spending time with a French friend, Lilian, it could have been a miserable evening. The Toulouse crowd was in the mood for an evening of World Cup rugby. It was strongly pro-Portugal, but the largest cheer was “Toulousain” which Lilian explained was a combined cheer for the Toulouse rugby team and the people of Toulouse.
Although the IRB website did not show the match sold out, getting tickets was not easy. The IRB and SNCF (train company) representative (Marie Sautel) at the official World Cup welcome point at the Toulouse train station suggested I try a local store that handled sport and concert tickets and, if not there, buy them from someone before the match. When I said I had read several places that the IRB did not want you buying from people outside the stadiums, she shrugged and replied, “Maybe someone does not want to go”. Lilian and I tried the ticket outlet. They said they had some on Saturday, but had sold them. Lilian had to go back to work and dropped me at the stadium. On the chance that Marie did not have all her info straight, I asked a security person if the ticket office was open. He showed me where it was and said it would open in 30 minutes. There was one other person in line. I took a walk and came back at 2 to find 12 people in line. By 2:15 there were 15 people in line and the office still was not open. I decided to spend my time enjoying the sights of Toulouse. At 5:00 I went back to the ticket office. It was open but there was a sign saying “No Tickets”. I guess I will never know if there ever were any official tickets.
As Lilian had Parents Night at his school, we had agreed to meet 30 minutes before kick-off. I arrived a little early and quickly found 2 tickets from a Spanish rugger who had (as Marie predicted) two friends who had decided they didn’t want to go to the match.
September 27th, 2007 St. Etienne, France: USA v Samoa
It is the morning after one of those incredible World Cup evenings. The USA play was fantastic from 14 of the 15 players. I take back all the bad things I’ve said about Mike Hercus. He kept the ball moving and was all over the pitch. It was a thrilling match to watch. The player who let the USA down was #13 Philip Eloff. After Samoa’s first 2 tries which were a direct result of him being out of position on the first try and missing a tackle on the second, I started writing down his missed tackles, coming up slow in defense, not passing to support outside, a penalty for hanging on to the ball, and other poor play. Why he was not replaced one can only imagine. He was directly responsible for at least a 13 point difference in a 25 to 21 defeat. Now that I am through venting on Philip let me get on to the special world cup moment. It was drizzling rain and I had not brought any spare clothes on my Toulouse and St Etienne journey. Hotel rooms were full in St Etienne and I was lucky to find a room in someone’s house through the tourist office. I rode the tram most of the afternoon just to stay out of the rain. I got to the stadium early hoping to hang around a bar, but there were none in the area except a grocery store chain’s cafeteria with a big screen tv. I was very tempted to stay out of the chilly rain and watch the match on tv. But it is France and in a grocery store cafeteria you can get an excellent bottle of wine with a quarter roast chicken for $8. Fortified with wine and chicken I headed out to find my seat. My ticket was for somewhere in the end zone, so I settled right between the post. I was in the end goal where every point was scored except for 1 Samoan penalty in the 2nd half (a result of Eloff hanging on to the ball). The crowd was overwhelmingly for Samoa, but by the 2nd half the USA’s exciting form of play and efforts had gained them tremendous respect and an equal amount of the cheers. It was 80 minutes of fun rugby to watch. The match was memorable and would have been a wonderful upset, but the truly memorable moment was the farewell from this World Cup to the Samoan side. The crowd gave them a 30 minute standing ovation. The Samoans did their haka to each side of the stadium. At the end the 35 year old Samoan legend, Brian Lima, in his 5th and (probably) last World Cup with his jersey off and his 6-pack rippling led another haka. The crowd went wild. One Samoan player took his jersey and handed it to a kid in the crowd. I’m not sure if it was drizzle or a tear, but my cheeks were moist.
October 1st, 2007 Montpellier, France: USA v South Africa
On a drizzly Sunday morning we popped The Boss’s Seeger Session CD in the car’s player and wound our way north from Leucate to Montpellier. We quickly found a parking spot close to Mossun Stadium. It was 9 hours before kick-off. The ticket office was closed with no signs about availability or when it might open. Before hopping the tram into the city we checked that the Bar Las Vegas (close to the stadium) had a TV where we could watch Ireland v Argentina in case we had to come back early for tickets. We got off the tram and were told at the IRB’s welcome booth that tickets were still available. We wandered the lovely old streets of Montpellier and, as the skies cleared, settled into a cafe in Comedy Square to celebrate our anniversary with a great meal and a few glasses of champagne. A horde of South African clad rugby supporters were already gathering in the square. After lunch, Carolyn was feeling a little sleepy. We found a spot in front of the giant screen in the square to watch France v Georgia. She lay her head on my lap and dozed until experiencing what she calls her most magical world cup moment. She awoke to to the rousing voices of the French crowd standing all around her singing the Marseillaise. We shifted to a couple of seats in an outdoor cafe where I could get a beer and still watch the match around the flow of the crowd and the occasional passing of a tram. I saw a sign a for tickets for sale at the cafe next to us. A group of South African’s had two extra tickets. They didn’t get the joke when I asked if they would be supporting the USA as they looked dumbfounded and pointed at their head to toe Springbok gear. We watched France’s clobber Georgia and after 20 minutes of Argentina taking a 4 try lead over Ireland, we took the tram back to the stadium. With 15 minutes left in the match, we squeezed our way into a corner of Bar Las Vegas to watch the convincing rise of the new rugby power – Argentina. Walking out of the bar we fondly remembered 6 years before in another Las Vegas we had pledged before God and Elvis to forever stay off of each others’ blue suede shoes. After a trip back to our car to get our world cup outfits on, we headed to the food and beer tents outside the stadium. With beer and excellent French frites in hand, we sat down at a table with an Australian and South African couple. We got the usual questions about New Orleans. Is the city still under water? How can the most powerful country in the world be so inept at helping its own people?
What can you say? No, it is not under water. Yes, the huge hulking bureaucracies of local, state, and federal governments tripped all over themselves blaming each other and accomplishing little.
Fortified with beer and frites, we scampered – yes, scampered!! -up to our seats in the upper deck of Stade Mosson to bravely (if off key) sing The Star Spangled Banner surrounded by our new South African friends.
Since I last wrote about the thwarted trip to the the miracle waters in the thermal pools in the Pyrenes, I went to a French doctor. After several sleepless nights, Carolyn took me to the local clinic in Leucate. She speaks a little French. The doctor spent thirty minutes asking questions and listening to my chest. He then said I had asthma prescribed an inhaler and charged me 30 Eur0s ($40). I filled the prescription, took a puff, and didn’t have another sleepless night. I had spent hundreds in the USA for x-rays and antibiotics and repeat trips to a doctor who spent 5 minutes, prescribed antibiotics, and sent me for another test. Beathe in. Breathe out. Move on.
Back to the USA vs Springboks match
The mood was jovial and the billtong (South African venison jerky) was flowing. One of the South Africans was Riann Van Zyl (sp?) – a former Seattle rugger and US Eagle. He played for the USA in the 2003 World Cup. He assured me the Eagle side was better than the side in 2003. The US side (although not able to defensively adjust to South Africa’s quick ball recycling and exceptional ball handling) played valiantly and earned considerable applause and respect from the predominantly South African crowd. Taku Ngwenya’s outside-inside-outside fake that left the incredible Springbok winger Brian Habana slapping air as he dived for Taku’s heals was a sensational moment enjoyed by all. It would go on to become the “IRB Try of the Year”. With 5 minutes to go we fought the tide of leaving bodies and headed pitch side for a close-up spot to watch the teams take their post match walks around the field. The USA proudly accepted the well deserved applause of the crowd. A couple of players sent their socks via security guards to pretty French girls along the rail. And as the p.a. system cranked up The Boss’s “Born in the USA,” the Eagles turned the last corner of the pitch and joined the stadium crowds applause for the Springboks.
October 7th, 2007 Cardiff, Wales: France v New Zealand
Where to begin? With the slow farewell drive along the Mediterranean on the way to Perpignan Airport ? With the 8 hour crawl through traffic around London two days ago? With the spectacular crossing of the Severn River and our welcome in Welsh and English into Wales? Or waking this morning to a new rugby world order? France had managed to climb from the mud their loss to Argentina had stuck them in. They had done the impossible. Even if it took the luck of a ref overlooked forward pass, New Zealand should never have let it get so close that an overlooked forward pass could make the difference.
After catching up with old Welsh friends Celia and Huw Thomas (an outstanding Welsh back who I played with in Ecuador almost 30 years ago), we headed to the revitalized Cardiff Bay area to watch England v Australia. Eight years ago during the 99 World Cup, I stood in a Welsh crowd of 400 people watching England play New Zealand on a giant screen in a brewery’s courtyard . Besides my English wife, I saw only one other person silently cheering for England. Wales, a nation that outspokenly cheers first for Wales and then for any team playing the English, was for at least 90 minutes yesterday behind the English. Besides the odd Aussie in the pub, the bar was boisterously overjoyed at the English 12-10 victory. When you are with Huw in Cardiff, you get a real feel of walking among rugby legends. In the pub where we watched the England match, he pointed out Grant Fox (All Black stand-off from the lates 80¹s and 90¹s) standing next to us. Along the streets of Cardiff, he nudged me as we passed legendary French winger Serge Blanco. And when you enter the Cardiff Rugby Club, you are surrounded by pictures of the great players through Welsh rugby history.
I had bought my ticket online back in February anticipating this would be an Irish-All Black clash. I joined the throng that was surging for the entrance gates of the majestic Millennium Stadium. The crowd seemed to be equally split between French and All Black supporters, with the odd splattering of green clad Irish supporters who had also purchased tickets for this quarterfinal long before Argentina squashed Ireland’s hopes for a spot in this quarterfinal showdown with New Zealand. The All Black supporters started out more vocal, but during the haka, the French side inched forward from the midfield line, curled around the world cup favorites and almost encircled the All Blacks. The French crowd gained confidence as they realized a repeat of the ¹99 World Cup semi-final was a real possibility. The cheer of “Les Bleus” grew in intensity through the evening and the chant of “All Blacks” faded away. After France’s 20-18 victory, I went pitch-side to watch the triumphal and farewell walks around the pitch of the French and All Blacks. The French took their lap, but the New Zealanders quickly disappeared down the changing room tunnel. I met up with my elated friends sitting among a dejected All Black supporting crowd in the Cardiff Rugby Club. Celia, who for over 30 years has seen the faces of many loosing ruggers and team supporters said, “I have never seen a defeated team so depressed. Grown men were crying. Others were in stunned silence.” Indeed sitting right next to us was an All Black supporter wiping away tears with his handkerchief. I was talking to Bob at the bar about how the All Blacks left the pitch without a farewell lap and how at all the pool matches I¹d seen where a team played their last match in the tournament, they had taken a farewell lap. I asked if they didn¹t do that in the knock-out rounds. Bob thought they usually did, but suggested I ask the distinguished looking All Black supporter standing next to us. So, I offered to buy the gentleman a pint and then asked the question. Mr. McCaw (All Black Captain Richie’s dad) wasn’t sure of the etiquette. It was a fantastic day capped by the harmonious voices of a Welsh choir resounding through the Cardiff RFC Pub
October 12th, 2007 Manchester, England: England v France
Today I’m sitting in a pub in Manchester sipping a pint of bitter. Tomorrow I’ll take the 3 hour train ride to London and find a lively pub to watch the England v France match. The English papers are spouting a fairly confident prediction of English victory after a hard match. There are lots of comparisons with the semi-final match 4 years ago in Australia when Jonny Wilkinson kicked France out of world cup contention during a heavy rain. The British bookies are not as confident. Odds for England to win are around 13 to 2. France is 6 to 4. Sunday I’ll again settle into a London pub for South Africa v Argentina. Argentina is certainly the darling of the press here, but the bookies like South Africa at about 11 to 10.
October 21, 2007 New Orleans, USA: South Africa v England
A wedding invitation pulled me back to the USA before the Final.
I paid my $20 and crowded into the rich rugby atmosphere of Finn McCool’s to watch South Africa kick 5 penalties to England’s 2 to win the world cup. Certainly the best team won, but the complaints about how poor the match was will go on – and on. The day before Argentina and France put on a fantastic match. No one seemed to have told the players that nobody cared who came in 3rd place. There were only a handful of us in Finn McCool’s to witness this marvelous moment when Argentina vaulted over France into rugby’s first tier beating them twice during the world cup held in France.
My prediction of French victory and 2 USA victories proved delusional. The French did manage the impressive feat of beating the All Blacks and the Eagles came within a whisker of beating Samoa. Personally the experience was “Fantastique”! I’ve already started planning for 2011 in New Zealand.