Column: Over There

A grand time for a grand chelem

By: Bill Alden
   PARIS — As I approached the ultra-modern Stade de France for a rugby showdown recently between France and Ireland, the stadium looked like a giant white flying saucer sprouting out of the industrial area that surrounds it in its north Paris neighborhood.
   While the 80,000-seat stadium, which was built for the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament, may have looked forbidding from afar, once inside it became clear that with the home side on the verge of sweeping the Six Nations rugby tournament the gleaming arena had taken on a festive air.
   The atmosphere created was reminiscent of a major college football game between old rivals mixed with a heavy dose of Gaullic flair. Bands were playing exuberantly in several areas of the stadium, serenading the fans as they streamed in for the contest.
   The French fans had a bounce in their step as they strolled in, many wearing black berets with the French team’s distinctive logo which features a rooster. The Irish fans, most clad in the kelly green jerseys of their team, were looking to spoil the French party which some mischief of their own.
   The European flavor of the fans was mixed with the U.S.-feel of the stadium, which featured two huge TV screens at either end and Nike banners flying from the upper corners.
   The slightly sterile 21st century aura, though, couldn’t dampen the buzz from the fans. The tournament, which has been in existence for 90 years, features intense rivalries between the original combatants which include England, Wales, and Scotland in addition to the French and Irish. (Italy was added in 2000 and is the weak sister although teams savor the trip to Rome.) The fervor of the traditional match-ups has produced a slew of upsets over the history of the tournament.
   Although winning the tournament through posting the most wins is glory enough, it is running the table and taking the grand slam, or "grand chelem" as it’s called in French that marks a truly special Six Nations campaign. Coming into this year’s tournament, the talented, veteran English were seen as the favorites, having entered the year as the world’s top-ranked team, bent on revenge after narrowly missing grand slams in 2000 and 2001.
   France, for its part, has a reputation as a creative, skilled side that can romp to victory with irresistible style one game and then stumble in the next outing due to erratic errors. This spring, however, led by coach Bernard LaPorte, Les Bleus, as the supporters call them, had developed a disciplined consistency, featuring bruising defensive play.
   The highlight of France’s 4-0 start in the 2002 competition was a 20-15 win over vaunted England, in which Les Bleus stunned the English with a blend of physical dominance in the scrum and inventive play on the back line.
   Ireland, with a reputation having the heart to compensate for its relative lack of talent, had won three of its first four Six Nations games this spring and was relishing its role as the lovable underdog to the French. And having narrowly beaten France in the teams’ last two meetings, the Irish had confidence in their ability to pull the upset.
   As a result, the France-Ireland match-up had emerged as the decisive game of the competition with tickets being so difficult to come by that I had to go through a ticket broker in Scotland to procure mine. Minutes after settling into my seat near the corner of one of the end zones, the French squad came out for a team picture, memorializing what they hoped would be an historic afternoon.
   The crowd let out a roar when Les Bleus came out for their final warm-ups on what had turned into a sunny, windy day. Showing the increased focus on specialized training that has seeped into the world of pro rugby, much of the French warm-up consisted of extensive running, hopping and skipping drills led by the team’s trainer.
   But even the increased focus on more scientific methods of conditioning, the impact of playing a brutal game with minimal padding was evident as about half of the French squad had their knees or thighs heavily wrapped.
   The Irish squad, meanwhile, grimly warmed up in the shady side of the stadium, focusing more on rugby-related drills, working on their passing and line-outs. About 10 minutes before kick-off, both teams returned to their dressing rooms for final words of wisdom from their coaches.
   Just before game time, the stadium shook and tri-color flags waved as the French team came out for kick-off. Not to be outdone, the pockets of green scattered through the arena screamed as the Irish team hit the field.
   One of the great traditions of Six Nations games is the zeal with which the teams and supporters sing their national anthems. The players typically link arms and scream out the song. Seats away from me, two Irish supporters, perhaps fueled with some Guinness, belted out the Irish anthem so loud that some of the French fans were rolling their eyes in our direction.
   The French partisans then responded by bellowing out their La Marseillaise just as loud, if not louder, and smiling in the direction of the two Irish crooners. To add extra spice to France’s rendition of the anthem, half of the stadium across the way held up red, white and blue placards, making a huge French flag as part of a promotion.
   The last notes had barely been sung when another roar went up as the teams kicked off. Within minutes, it became evident that the French were going to get the party for which they came. Les Bleus resembled a blue wave as they steamrolled Ireland right from the opening gun. They scored a try, the rugby equivalent of a touchdown in American football, at the five-minute mark.
   Ireland showed a brief burst of fight when its burly captain, Keith Wood, who bears a passing resemblance to Uncle Festus of the Addams Family and is called the "raging potato" in honor of his style of play and clean-shaven head, rammed in a try in response to the strong French start.
   The French fans around me were muttering oh-la-las in a wary tone as Ireland struggled to built on Wood’s effort. But it didn’t take long for those oh-la-las to become expressed with pleasure as the French rolled to a 28-5 halftime lead, putting the game out of reach with the crowd breaking into impromptu versions of Las Marseillaise as Les Bleus piled up the tries.
   The second half dragged a bit as France played conservatively relying on penalty kicks, something like field goals in football, to consolidate their rout. The crowd took to entertaining itself by doing a series of waves to keep themselves primed for the celebration to come.
   When game ended with the French winning 44-5, the party began in earnest as the scoreboard flashed "grand chelem" for about a minute. The French players mobbed each other on the field with exuberant hugs to start the festivities.
   The team then headed to the second deck of the stadium to get their medals and the team trophy. With the PA system blaring Queen’s "We Are the Champions" and the fans hollering as they stood on their seats for a better view, Les Bleus bounded down through the crowd for a lap of honor around the field.
   That last bit of the celebration was highlighted by a group head-first slide by the players and ended with the French carrying their captain, Fabien Galthie, on their shoulders as he held the team trophy over his head.
   Outside the stadium, the lines were long at the biere tents set up along the plaza leading to the stadium as the supporters rehashed the afternoon’s events. The French savored their grand chelem and the Irish good-naturedly lamented the beating their valiant side had absorbed, creating a scene that resembled alums at a post-game football tailgate enjoying the camaraderie of the day and looking forward to the next installment of the rivalry.