Watching Toulon here in London a few weekends ago (against Saracens) and hearing the legendary Pilou Pilou war-cry performed before every match brought back memories of an epic sporting trip myself and Dyl went on over two years ago in late 2014 where we watched top 14 French rugby in Toulon and Champions League football in Madrid.
Top 14 Rugby – Toulon vs. Grenoble
We flew out from London bright and breezy on a cold early November Saturday morning and were soon in warm Toulon admiring the Mediterranean. We had flown via Marseille, which had significantly cheaper flights, before jumping on a 90 min EUR8.50 train at the airport.
The French professional league is the ‘Top 14’ and defending champions Rugby Club Toulonnais (also known as Toulon or RCT), then sitting second behind Clermont having won six from nine games, were taking on sixth-placed Grenoble who had five wins.
Toulon were also the two-time defending Heineken Cup champions, having beaten Clermont in 2013 and Saracens earlier that year, and were packed with both current and former internationals from 1 to 15. This included Argentinian eighth-man Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Australian fly-half Matt Giteau, Welsh full-back Leigh Halfpenny and a number of South Africans, including the legendary Bryan Habana and Bakkies Botha, Michael Claasens and many others.
Arriving in town before lunch, we quickly noticed how quiet it was and as we walked to the stadium without any other fans, our hearts began to drop – had we royally messed this up and arrived on the wrong weekend? Suffice to say there was a fair amount of panic!
- ‘Bortz, what date did you buy tickets for?’ Dyl asked trying to be as polite and calm as possible
- ‘Dyl, don’t be ridiculous – it must be a late kick off, the match is definitely today – Nov 2nd’
- ‘Ah, brilliant – that’s tomorrow!!’ (you idiot he added)
Tomorrow was 100% better than last or next week so we quickly stopped panicking and headed to a cafe on the water to make some plans. We eventually decided for the most romantic option we had – renting a car and heading along the French Riviera for an ice cream in St Tropez. The town is obviously far too fancy and expensive for us but we enjoyed wandering through its alleyways and the ice cream was some of best I’ve ever eaten.
After a night across the bay in far cheaper St Maxine and a lovely drive back that took us past Port Grimaud, the Venice of France, we were back in Toulon and it was finally game day! The sun was out in full force and the atmosphere around the stadium was phenomenal. Stade Felix Mayol is a lovely open stadium, located very close to the sea, and Toulon certainly lived up to the hype, running in nine tries and hammering Grenoble 61-28. With the sun on our backs and a few cold beers in hand, it truly was a blissful afternoon.
Champion League Football – Liverpool vs. Real Madrid
The following morning we caught a flight to Madrid where we were picked up by the awesome Luke. We had met Luke a few years back in New Zealand whilst we were in town for the rugby world cup and it was amazing hanging out for a few days in his adopted hometown.
The football was in many respects an excuse to visit Luke but what an excuse – Liverpool vs. Real in the Champions League at the Santiago Bernabeu, an iconic football stadium. Dyl and I are both ardent Liverpool fans and though we weren’t able to secure tickets, it was an unbelievable opportunity to watch Liverpool in Europe and Luke was (fairly) confident he would be able to find tickets.
Aside from showing us some of his favourite places to eat round the city and introducing us to the brilliant town of Sagovia with its famous aqueduct and as famous Cochinillo Asado (suckling pig), Luke came through for us massively and secured three tickets!
After the 3-0 hammering in the fixture at Anfield a few weeks earlier, Liverpool were written off by pretty much everyone. This included the (then) coach Brendan Rogers who admitted as much in his non-selection of talisman Steven Gerrard. Liverpool have an incredibly proud history in Europe and these were the nights the club lived for so it was a very strange and frustrating decision.
The stadium is huge with steep stands and there was a fantastic atmosphere both around the stadium beforehand and throughout the game. Liverpool were to lose 1-0 but the result wasn’t what mattered and though we were frustrated not to be playing and watching our best XI, it was an incredible experience to be there.
Luke my boy, you legend (as always) – thanks so much for an unbelievable few days and I’m so chuffed we finally had that beer in your bar!