After our last match in the Heineken Cup against Northampton we had two championship matches away to Auch on December 17th and Pau at home on the 22nd.
Before the Auch game we were fourth in the table. We'd hoped to pick up a bonus point but it wasn't the case. The weather was terrible, we didn't finish off some of our chances and only scored two tries to win by 18-11. I played in the second-row Auch, one of the promoted teams from last year, defended and played like it was World Cup final.
On the Monday prior to the Pau game, our coach said that if we didn't win and pick up a bonus point he'd give up coaching. He was sick of seeing teams pass us out even through we'd won more games, because they'd picked up eight, nine or ten bonus points and we'd only picked up five.
We spent the night before the game in a hotel; usually hotel overnights for home games are confined to play-off matches or European Cup games. Myself and Alfie, Gareth Thomas, watched The Day After Tomorrow. It was a pretty relaxed mood before the match. We only led 10-0 at half-time with one converted try. Guy Noves gave the boys a bit of a bollickin' for not finishing off chances, before we went out and won the game 39-0 with six tries. The bonus point put us second in a three-way tie on 51 points, behind Stade Francais and ahead of Bourgoin on points difference, with Castres and
Perpignan a further four points behind. And Guy Noves is still the coach.
He'd decided to give us an eight-day break until January 2nd, as our next next game isn't until we play Glasgow away in the Heineken Cup next Friday.
On the night of the 23rd I ended up in De Danu. Omar Hasan, the Argentinian and Castres prop who is in line to become a professional opera singer, took over the show and sang about seven or eight songs. No need for any music. A fantastic night.
I drove Alfie to the airport at 7.00 in the morning, not feeling too well as I'd only got to bed at 3.00. After that a bit of last-minute shopping, then home, lit the fire, put the kids to bed, put the feet up and waited for Santa Claus to come.
Myself and Alfie had been delighted to receive cards from Clive Woodward wishing us a merry Christmas and a good 2005, Lions year, signed by Woody.
The handwritten cards have the All Blacks lined up like they would for the haka, and the Lions' symbol underneath. Needless to say, that inspired myself and Alfie to train over the Christmas period.
The big day went well. I managed to save the turkey this year. For anyone who can remember last year it turned out to be the krypton factor. I'd bought it a bit too early and it had turned green by Christmas Day. But this year I waited to buy it until the day before.
On the 26th, like everyone else, we woke up to pictures of the terrible tsunami trajedy. I couldn't help but think of the film I'd watched with Alfie, which is about how a tidal wave wipes out New York, and we'd talked about the way the human race is messing up the environment, and the planet's changing climate. You think of two summers ago in France, when temperatures reached 50 degrees and there were over 10,000 heat-related deaths.
Later that day we went to William Servat's village, Salies du Salat, for his uncle's 40th birthday party, attended by about 50 people at a hotel owned by a Mr and Mrs Hubert. He'd been to Galway about ten years ago with a couple of hundred pounds in his pocket and set up a creperie, which became a boulangerie, which became a string of boulangeries.
He met and married a girl from the west, and built his own house, but grew tired of the Irish tax system, sold up everything and returned home to buy this hotel in the Pyrenees.
They laid on a four-course meal, and music, before we went back to the bar and that night he cooked steaks and chips for about ten of us who had some driving to do, including myself and William.
The next day myself, Paula and the boys headed off to Peyragudes, a ski station in the Pyrenees about two hours from Toulouse, with William and his family. He had managed to wangle us a five-day freebie; apartment, food, ski hire etc. It's an annual promotion by a tv station attended by tv journalists and an array of about 20 sportspeople, which included Cristian Califano, Philippe Sella, the cyclist Stephane Auge, the French kayak Olympic gold medallist Philippe Espengue, and Vincent Valeri, the world champion snowboarder, who I managed to get a couple of lessons from.
Califano was a great laugh, orchestrating everything. I thought I was mad until I met him. Califano has two girls the same age as Daniel and Josh, so I told him he'd better start saving as we like big weddings in Ireland. A great time and great friendships made.
We returned to Toulouse on New Year's Eve and went to Alfie's house. He'd invited over a few friends from Wales. We rang in two New Years, one French and then a Welsh/Irish one an hour later. But then Sky went straight back to the tsunami disaster. It was a fairly sombre New Year's Eve.
Back to work with a bang this week. Two sessions on Sunday, two on Monday, one Tuesday, one Wednesday and another one tomorrow. Everyone seems to be refreshed and in good form. Isitolo Maka went home to Tonga to get married to a girl he met last summer, and returned with the photo album.
For the first time in three years I'm fully fit but not in the starting XV for a European Cup game. That's Toulouse and the squad system. You can't think of it as being dropped. I'm in good company on the bench. William Servat, voted world hooker of the year, Isitol Maka, who's playing out of his skin and is top try scorer in France. He has about 12. Unstoppable from five metres. He's been happy for the last few months and has been playing his best rugby this year. Behind every good man...
Today, we also had a collection for the L'Equippe rugby writer Henri Bru, whose wife has been missing since the tsunami disaster while she visited home in Thailand over Christmas. They owned a restaurant and bar, on one of the islands there, which have been destroyed. Several other employees are unaccounted for as well. Everyone knew Henri. It's very sad. It made the pictures we watched on television over Christmas hit home again. We've little to complain about really.
An interview with Gerry Thornley.