Paris. The Rugby World Cup Final. As an English sports fan there was never any chance that I was going to miss such an amazing spectacle. Though I have visited gay Paris (imagine this spoken with an unconvincing French accent) on a few previous occasions, nothing could have prepared me for what greeted me at the Champ de Mars. A sea of red and white. A cacophony of noise. The rousing vocals of the largest choir I have ever witnessed, serenading our Parisian and Springbok neighbours with rendition after rendition of ‘Swing low, Sweet chariot.’
The anticipation was tangible and I quickly found myself caught up in in the atmosphere of the occasion enthusiastically accompanying a large group nearby in belting out ‘I’m England till I die’. I did hear a few disapproving murmurs from some middle-age rugby stalwarts, clearly unappreciative of an English football anthem being used to spur on Brian Ashton’s lions. Many rugby fans are resentful of their football counterparts who jump on the bandwagon, and there were plenty in Paris that night. But everyone was there to cheer on the boys, and anyone who made the trip over should be commended for their effort and incredible support.
The match doesn’t need to be recreated in detail. We can talk about the pain of the disallowed try, the disappointment of Robinson’s final hurrah being cut short by injury, and the eventual heartache at hearing the final whistle. But this England team were completely written off after the 36-0 group stage humiliation, yet they showed with the help of a superb forward line, real character and grit to win through against the old enemy and the hosts. Thankfully the majority of England supporters realised this achievement, and there was little desire to ‘kick the shit out of some Springboks’, though I did hear it suggested in some quarters.
So myself and many of the other 70,000 plus England fans, went out into Paris to drink and party long into the night, right through until the early hours. At a small bar in St Michel, England and South Africa fans sung in unison, still screeching ‘my my my Delilah’ when the admirably tolerant owner politely informed us that at 05:30, we had reached closing time.
It was a night that I shall not forget for a long time. A nation united in the spirit of sport. I’ve always had the pessimistic outlook that second place is first loser, and I despise the perennial underachievement apparently enshrined in English sport. But as massive underdogs, our efforts should be recognised and praised, though perhaps not celebrated. It is a real possibility that, akin to the period post victory in 2003, this final experience will have left it’s mark on a number of bandwagon passengers, and many new rugby fans will have been conceived in Paris. The Guinness Premiership and its tirelessly passionate players deserve a much greater level of support, and I hope that this will soon become a rugby reality.