Bonjour encore. It's that time of year again; Heineken Cup time. It's also hard to believe that I'm going into my fourth year here at Toulouse, and maybe also my last, as my contract is up at the end of the season. But it's been a great experience so far; four finals and two semi-finals in three years, and I'm still hungry for more.
So what's been happening since we lifted the Heineken Cup? We spent most of the summer in France, visiting the Basque country around Biarritz and San Sebastian, and the Catalan side of France also. We loved it so much that we ended up buying a mobile home in a campsite in Vias, between Beziers and Narbonne. Gerry Thornley is handling the calls for the 06 summer season. (Good value, no bogus calls!).
Spending the summer in France gave me a better insight into the way of life here and what I really noticed this year is that nothing happens in August, especially in the cities or the bigger towns. If it doesn't have a beach, it closes for the month. Bars, restaurants, shops, you name it, it closes. And those that do stay open don't have any customers.
French workers just don't work after 2.00 in August. You won't find a place to eat in unless it's fast food or a sandwich in a petrol station. And if you arrive on a Sunday in August, you're fooked. In fact, any other time of the year on a Sunday, you're really in trouble if you forget to buy, tea, milk, bread, butter, cigarettes or whatever. It's cold turkey until Monday or else you have to drive the length and breadth of the country.
In September and October, it's more mushroom and wine season. A neighbour popped around the other day with a big bag of mushrooms for us, and they were the size of footballs. I'm not exaggerating. You have to cut them and slice them and mix them with garlic. Lovely. Lots of French people have their own patches for growing mushrooms but they'll never tell you exactly where they are. They point vaguely to various points in the hills or mountains.
In these months you also see loads of men and women out picking grapes for the first of the season's wines. Beaujolais Nouveau is usually the first wine that comes on the market. It's always cheap, awful, and blows the head off you. They call it the worker's wine. But picking the grapes and tucking into the Beaujolais Nouveau is a big custom all over France around this time of the year.
And what of the rugby? A few players have left since the start of last season. Patrice Collazo, the prop, has gone to Gloucester; Christian Labit has gone to Narbonne, Jean-Frederic Dubois, the scrumhalf, has gone to Perpignan and surprisingly, five games into the season, David Gerard upped and went to Northampton.
In came Yannick Nyanga, the outstanding backrower for France last year, from Beziers, who's signing for the club was almost as complicated as my own. I'll tell you about that another time. Also Gregory Menkarska, a very good scrummager from Auch, joined, and the one and only Aiden McCullen. What can I say about Lard? He's fitted in very well in the Toulouse set-up. That he speaks fluent French is an advantage, and he has a great sense of humour. He started the first five games and has been changing with Isitolo Maka for the last four.
Ever since I came here we always seem to lose two or three of our first four games, but this season we won our first eight, which they say isToulouse's best start to a championship. What was very unusual is that fourof them were away. We beat Bayonne (26-12), Montpellier (24-12), Toulon (18-15) and Agen (33-16 on the road, and at home we've beaten Pau (52-9), Narbonne (64-22), Perpignan (30-22) and Biarritz (26-20).
Nyanga has really shone. What's most impressive about him is his speed. Whenever there's a breakdown, he always seems to be there, he's very fast up in defence, getting chargedowns on outhalves or scrumhalves' box kicks, and although he's not a big man in the line-outs he's very good to throw up defensively.
Aiden has been playing at number eight mostly because the club wouldn't play Izzy (Maka) for the first five game until he got his weight down to 130 kilos; he came back at the start of the season at 145 kilos. Since then though, he's really shone too so Aiden is going to have his hands full. He played seven last week as Nyanga was rested and Finau Maka was forced to pull out for the much-hyped game against Stade Francais in Paris in front of 80,000 people in the Stade de France.
Max Guazzini, their owner and marketing legend, ensured a world record for a club game. The bands, cheerleaders, fire eaters before the game and at half-time made it a carnival atmosphere. It all reminded me of a story with Leinster when we played Stade Francais in Paris five or six seasons ago. Myself and Victor Costello were standing beside each other in the tunnel and had to run through a huge Stade Francais flag. When we went through that we had to run between two lines of cheerleaders. I said to him: 'Holy God Victor, wha't going on here.' In the huddle I have to admit myself and Victor were slightly distracted. Sure enough, five minutes into the game Victor sustained a rib injury and had to sit out the rest of the match with the cheerleaders.
Not unlike that day, Toulouse were 26-0 down at half-time. We did win the second-half 15-3 but in many ways the defeat might have done us some good. We had been walking on air, and that brought us back down to earth before the Heineken Cup. Guy Noves hadn't said much during the winning run, but on Saturday night we were already dreading the video session on Monday. Even as a professional rugby player, you never get used to that. The thought of a video session can keep you awake at night if you haven't played well, and it wasn't one of my best games (or anyone's, for that matter). And Guy Noves was back screaming and shouting when highlighting fellas' mistakes.
Against Llanelli on Saturday we'll hopefully bounce back, and we'll be looking to do just that. I've been carrying a shoulder injury since Saturday, which I hope will come right with daily treatment. I want to play in this one.
(In an interview with the Irish Times' Gerry Thornley)