Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

French still connected to World Cup

Peter Bills reports from Paris in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup final

The French team is out but France's enthusiasm for the Rugby World Cup shows little sign of declining.



You could hardly say that rugby football and Paris Fashion Week have been natural companions down the ages. They go about as well together as snails and ketchup.

But for once, even in this land renowned for its haute couture, where men swan down the street as walking creations of the fashion houses with every bit as much self-importance as women, rugby is emerging the winner.

Paris Fashion Week passed with little obvious impact. Sure, a few new crazily absurd dresses were half worn by models as stick thin as lamp posts. But it's the world of beefy thighs, hairy legs and sweaty brows that is captivating the French populace right now.

Paris is 'en fete' as they say in these parts and the Rugby World Cup party is about to reach its climax. Tonight will see the third place match at Parc des Princes between France and Argentina with the grand final, between England and South Africa, tomorrow evening at Stade de France.

Anything to do with rugby has been selling like hot cakes in this city. Rugby jerseys and T-shirts are to be seen everywhere. But you must remember one thing. This is France so they don't do tatty. As befits a country in which style is omnipresent, a giant mural on an 18th century building close by the Arc de Triomphe depicts dashing rugby men, players diving to make tackles and leaping like salmon to catch the ball in the line-outs.

Then there's the Eiffel Tower where a set of rugby posts has been erected and a ball hung between them, a scene that is even floodlit at night as a constant reminder to the French about this tournament.

Not that the visitor could miss it. Pubs are festooned with balloons the colours of red, white and blue, and the flags of the competing nations also hang from many buildings. Outside the elegant Hotel de Ville, where men like Citizen Robespierre once strolled after the Revolution, a giant TV screen has been erected.

One evening, as I made my way to the Stade de France to see the match between France and Ireland, crowds had begun gathering at 5pm, to get the best possible vantage points. Kick off time wasn't until 9pm but those without tickets were determined to get a front row view of the screen.

St. Germain-des-Pres is the focal point of most people's night life in Paris. It is an area littered with small, intimate bistros and bars, places where you can enjoy ambience, attitude and aniseed in equal quantities. Here, in normal times, you can bring your wife/lover/boyfriend/gardener/mother/servant or anyone else and be guaranteed anonymity. But not at World Cup time.

In a tiny street just off the Rue Princesse, two giant replicas of French rugby shirts hang over the road. On the side of bars and restaurants, huge colour photographs of the current French players have been put up. Attitude, very French, is the key in most of them.

In St. Germain one night recently, after the Ireland v Argentina match, thousands of Irish fans descended and set up a spontaneous drop goal kicking competition down the length of the road. One girl got the ball high enough to slam it into a wall heater positioned above a restaurant where us patrons were dining outside¿as you do.

We scattered as the thing shook and rattled. Thankfully, it didn't quite knock it off the wall. Just around the corner from the restaurant, the fashionable 'Eden Park' French sports fashion designer company, run by former French international centre Frank Mesnel, has just opened a new store. It is chic down to the last 'c'.

This weekend, fans from France will mingle with the English, South Africans and Argentinians. It should be a riot of colour, fun, noise and vibrancy.

If it were a soccer event, the portents would be alarming. And, indeed, the one serious criticism it is possible to make of this World Cup is that the security has been overwhelming, too much in your face. The reason for that was revealed to me in an interview with French Rugby President Bernard Lapasset, the man who will soon become head of the world game's governing body, the IRB. Lapasset admitted the security had been overwhelming. But he said: "The trouble is, the French authorities did not understand the difference between soccer and rugby. They have had many problems with football supporters in recent times and feared something similar from rugby followers. We tried to tell them rugby people are not like that. But¿¿.. "

Nevertheless, come the small hours of Sunday morning, the party will be in full swing down in the little streets of St. Germain. Maybe, just maybe, there haven't been as riotously happy times as these in the old French capital since 1789 and the days of Citizen Robespierre.

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