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48 hours in France: Leinster, Christian Wade and Racing by the sea

By Liam Heagney
Racing 92's English wing Christian Wade (right) celebrates after scoring a try in Le Havre (Photo by Lou Benoist/AFP via Getty Images)

The One To Win is the glitzy sound bite accompanying the 28th edition of the Heineken Champions Cup, but is that an excessively schmaltzy marketing gambit or a genuine reflection of the supposedly lofty status that the tournament still believes it credibly retains?

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In its pomp, the classic six-pool format used to have oodles of fans thronging airports at this time of the year, heading to out-of-town winter destinations with a spring in their step and bundles of cash to splash on supporting their respective teams.

It was an unmissable colourful, cultural experience, a jamboree that resulted in the Heineken Cup being universally recognised for years as the tremendous club success of the professional era.

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Then came the boardroom revolution, the 2014 extermination of the European Rugby Cup and the instigation of European Professional Club Rugby, the grouping where French and English clubs dominate the financial carve-up.

Life has never been the same since then for the old tournament and its latest iteration is the most convoluted yet. It’s still tricky enough getting your head around the covid-inspired two pools of twelve clubs format containing random matches to decide the 16 qualifiers for the round of 16.

Now, factoring in the inclusion of South African teams and the realisation that the E in EPCR is a mockery is the latest plot twist for the tournament that was launched the other week in an off-the-beaten-track hotel near the M25 in London. Glamorous landmark location-type launches seem to be a thing of the past.

In 23 weeks, all roads will lead to Dublin as the Aviva Stadium will stage the 2023 final on May 20. In the meantime, RugbyPasscourtesy of BT Sport – headed from the Irish capital to France on Friday to check out the next day’s meeting of Racing 92 versus Leinster, the teams that contested the nail-biting 2018 decider.

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Back then, that sold-out fixture was a riotous festival that took place in Spain’s Bilbao. Now, Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine was the novel destination with Racing’s ‘other world’ indoor stadium in Paris off limits due to a rap concert getting first dibs ahead of the rugby. Here are some of the sights, sounds and reflections on what unfolded across 48 hours in France:

‘Managed to get here alright’
It was an icy start in Dublin, the overnight wintry blast affecting the Friday morning flight schedules. At least there was a start to eventually be had. Twelve months previously, Leinster were left fuming when handed a 0-28 defeat by an EPCR medical board who cancelled their December pool trip to Montpellier even though the Irish province insisted they had a covid-free 23-strong squad fit, healthy and ready to play.

This time there was no red tape but plenty of delays. While Leinster were kept on a leash which meant they only arrived in Le Havre at 11pm after their flight was re-routed from Deauville to Paris, match referee Luke Pearce was spotted elsewhere in the airport negotiating the treacherously slippy pathway to an Aer Lingus noon time plane from a cargo depot converted into a departures area.

Under the watchful eye of Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray, whose faces were gigantically painted on the outside of the adjacently parked plane that was the official flight of the Ireland team, Pearce made it up the steps unscathed and it was after full-time the following day when RugbyPass canvassed the official’s thoughts on where Europe reputationally stands in his pecking order.

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“It’s amazing,” he said. “The Champions Cup is the premier tournament in the world I think and every time you get a game here and an experience over in France is awesome. Especially after covid, we now realise what it is like to referee with crowds again and the noise. It’s always pretty special, it’s great to get it up and running and now move on to round two.

“I love the U Arena, it is always special when you go to Paris and you are indoors but this was a new stadium, we now move back down to Paris and get home Sunday, back to London. I flew over from Exeter (to visit World Rugby) and then went from Dublin to Paris.

“It’s different, it’s great going to different venues and different places and getting used to the travel again, making sure you get to the right place at the right time. It’s good. I managed to get here alright. The teams have a team manager organising their travel while we go on our own and it’s great. The European Cup is the reason we do it below internationals.

“Your mind is always fried after a game. We will watch the game back now on the train back to Paris with a couple of beers as a team, good, bad or ugly, and then we will watch the football tonight and cheer England onto a win (that part of Pearce’s night didn’t go according to plan, England eliminated 2-1).

“My first European game in France was Stade Francais versus Bucharest Wolves in 2011,” he added. “It’s always nice to reflect back on it. The European Cup is always a special tournament to be involved in.”

‘We have 300 flags’
The level of away day support Leinster now attract is night and day compared to the minibus blink-and-you’d-miss-them meagre number of followers present in Biarritz when this correspondent first covered the Irish province playing in France in January 2004.

That was the occasion when winger John McWeeney infamously dropped the ball over the try line en route to the 21-32 defeat that eliminated Leinster and left current coach Leo Cullen, a radio pundit on that day nearly 19 years ago due to injury, giving his verdict on a dour campaign that resulted in the sacking some months later of Gary Ella.

Eoin Kilkenny, who has been travelling away to see Leinster since their 2009 title breakthrough, was one of the fortunate ones, his weekend travel plan coming to fruition and seeing him make it to Le Havre on time, unlike numerous other Leinster fans whose itineraries were shelved by the Dublin airport disruption. He was outside the stadium on Saturday, handing out flags to the fans arriving before the team buses pulled up at the ground.

“It’s absolutely fabulous and to see a new part of France as well… it’s a pity the game was moved, that it isn’t in Racing, but it is great to see a new part of France and just to get away because there are so many people stuck in Dublin at the moment who didn’t get out today. I feel lucky that I even got here.

Leinster fan in La Havre
Leinster fan Eoin Kilkenny outside the stadium in Le Havre

“We missed it [away day travel in Europe] for so long. We couldn’t even get to the local stadium in Dublin during the pandemic so the idea of being able to come to France, to make it over and to meet the Racing supporters as well – they are so friendly and I was actually staying in the hotel with the Racing team and they were all very nice.

“We’re here outside the stadium about an hour and a half before the kick-off and it is a great atmosphere with the two different sets of fans getting together. That is something special, something that you missed for so many years. We have 300 flags to give away but given the cancellations in Dublin airport, I think I will be bringing a few back with me, unfortunately.

“The format has changed and it is difficult to understand even for someone who follows it a lot but this is the best team in the URC versus one of the top two teams in France, you can’t get that anywhere else. This is the European Cup, this is what European Rugby is all about, pitting the best against the best and with the South Africans coming in, we have seen the difference they have made in the URC and it is only going to improve Europe, the Champions Cup.”

‘Great test of the group’
We were on the Le Stade Océane sidelines watching the warm-up when Guy Easterby, the Leinster team manager, strolled up to say hello just metres from where the big spending Jacky Lorenzetti was holding court on the Racing bench. The Irish team had a twinkle in its eye as it set about its matchday preparation full of purpose, unlike the day before when the best-laid plans were scratched due to the inclement weather.

You have to go back to Lyon in winter 2019 to find the last time Leinster enjoyed noisy away day support in France at this particular time of the year and Easterby was loving the sense of anticipation in the salty seaside air of Le Havre with the clock counting down to the 2pm local time kick-off.

“It’s such a great test of the group. Just really excited. It’s good to be back with full stadiums and people being able to travel. With the four games as well, that’s the other big thing, every game is absolutely vital. There is no room for error in terms of where you end up in your pool, so this is vitally important.

“The reality is this (format) is what it is for the season and we have to get our heads around it and understand what we need to do to ensure we come as high up in our pool as we can to help us make it through to the knockout stages.

Leinster Racing
Dan Sheehan of Leinster is tackled by Finn Russell (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“You are going to run into trouble with travel at this time of year but it is about getting on with it and looking what we could do better in the future, but it is no issue at all. Everyone is delighted to be here and be involved in such a big game.

“The atmosphere is something we have all missed, the interaction with the crowd, with our fans, who have been so brilliant. You can see what we have got back to in the RDS and the Aviva this year in terms of that real connection with our fans and they are vitally important, particularly you come to away games in France. No matter how many numbers you get here, the fact is they make noise and you feel that they are here and supporting you, it really does help.

“I am trying to think when I played,” he added when asked if he could recall his own first Leinster away day in France as a player in the noughties. “It’s probably one of those Bourgoin games, we played them twice in two years, lost one year, scored late in the other. It was in the freezing cold. Great occasions.”

‘It’s been sick, man’
It’s felt the long-term future of the Champions Cup is very much tangled up in how the shots-calling French clubs react to the travel and logistics of having the South Africans muscle their way in on the scene.

The Top 14 has been the dominant player in recent times on the pitch, too, with Toulouse and La Rochelle winning the last two tournaments, with Bordeaux and Racing also contesting semi-finals in which the only non-French presence have been Leinster, who have lost in successive years to La Rochelle.

Three-time finalists Racing retain giddy hopes of ultimately conquering Europe and they entered Saturday’s match with high expectations of getting their latest campaign started on a winning note. It didn’t happen, Leinster stuffing them 42-10 with a power-packed display that deeply wounded the hosts.

The dejection was easily detectable in the stadium tunnel, the Racing players trooping around with heads bowed at one end of the corridor while Leinster smiles lit up the other end. Not since a January 2018 26-7 win for Wasps over Ulster in Coventry had Christian Wade played in a Champions Cup game.

General view of Racing versus Leinster
A view of the second-half action in Le Havre as Racing defend their try line

Having been away with the NFL Buffalo Bills in the interim, he was thrilled to be back in the thick of it, scoring a late try and belatedly giving the enthusiastic Racing support something to cheer. “It’s a privilege for me to be able to be back playing rugby, fit and healthy, also in an outfit which is Racing, playing in the Heineken Champions Cup, the most prestigious club tournament in the world,” he said, leaning against a wall and happy to chat about with a reporter that he coincidentally bumped into earlier on Saturday in a hotel elevator down by the Le Havre harbour.

“For me, it has been a greater experience today, the fans were great as usual from both sides, Leinster and for us, and it was a very good contest out there. I know the score didn’t go our way but these things happen. We have to go away, get together as a group, learn from today’s game and look ahead to next week (at Harlequins) so that we can make sure that we do what needs to be done to qualify.

“There have been a lot of things that have changed. I have been out of the game for four years so there is a lot of difference. Rules have changed. The Champions Cup has changed but at the end of the day it is rugby, you have got to adapt to whatever is going on with the rules and stuff and just enjoy it, embrace it and just keep moving forward.”

It was September when Wade signed a one-year deal at Racing having left America earlier in 2022. How has he found the experience? “Oh, it’s been sick, man. Prior to coming back to rugby, I had played most of my games in England and the UK but the French games were always big games that you would look forward to.

“So now being over here in France, it has been an amazing experience. Every game you go to has sold-out crowds. Being at Racing, playing at La Defense Arena, is absolutely amazing. Great for me as well as a winger who likes to use footwork and speed. It has been a great opportunity to play here and we just want to keep doing our best and bring some silverware to Racing.

“It definitely looks like there is more that goes into it than in the Premiership back home, just in terms of the dressing rooms, the pitches we play on – every pitch has been sweet. I don’t know what the Premiership has been like in the last four years if there have been renovations and stuff but you can definitely see that in the Top 14 there is a lot more commercial stuff behind it.

“There is a lot bigger push from fans coming to games and every city you go to there is a flood, a sea of fans as you pull up to the grounds. The French definitely love their rugby and it shows at each game.”

‘A lot of proud parents’
Leinster boss Leo Cullen has come a long way from the vulnerable coaching apprentice that saw his team lose five of their six European games on his initial watch across the winter of 2015/16. He’d been parachuted into the job at short notice with just a single year as an assistant under his belt when Matt O’Connor was handed his P45. Cullen struggled to pick up the pieces, his team beaten at Wasps, Bath and Toulon.

Since then, he led Leinster to 2018 glory, becoming that rare breed coach who has also won the title as a player (three times), and contested two finals. Hammering Racing in their opening 2022/23 match was thrilling, especially as this time last year Leinster were prevented from travelling to Montpellier due to pandemic restrictions.

“Last year? Jeepers, I remember it so clearly, everything about that Montpellier week. Yeah, you just have to deal with it,” he chuckled in the Le Havre tunnel area just minutes after a stern-looking Laurent Travers had passed by en route to his difficult post-game media briefing. “Our last experience in France was obviously the final (lost to La Rochelle in Marseille), so it goes right down to the wire.

“Everyone poured their hearts and souls into that to get to that point and it didn’t quite work out but now we get another opportunity to go again. We are very lucky in a way. It was great being away. Lads showed heart out there today which hopefully is just the start of it because we want to kick on.

“We always had those back-to-back games in December and had plenty in France. Think of some of those big score differences over the years, the Bourgoin game with a 100-point swing so that is the thing, they are unusual fixtures.

“It’s slightly different the format as we know now, but it is now onto the next one. Just because you win away it doesn’t give any guarantees that you are going to turn up and win at home so we need to prepare properly next week.

“It’s amazing but even at the airport and I know a lot of people got stuck at the airport, but yeah it is amazing, a lot of proud parents there, they were on the flight as well so they spent a lot of time with their sons yesterday at the airport, probably more time than they get to spend with them, so yeah it was nice that the lads have gone and put on a decent show.

“Racing are a top team and we have great respect for them. To get a win over here is great but as I said, unless we back it up next week it doesn’t count a huge amount, does it?

“You have just got to run with the delays and get on with it. Certain elements you don’t have control over so you gain control of what you can. That is probably a good message for us. For us now with Gloucester, it’s to prepare well and just control what we can.”

Postscript
Le Havre turned even livelier on Saturday night, the town wedged as people gathered to watch France knock England out of the football World Cup just hours after Leinster had exited, their bus racing away from the stadium for the flight that soon had them home and hosed after their six-try adventure.

Europe away had been swell, just like the winter days of old when fans pencilled in this time of year for a cheeky getaway. Champions Cup pool away days with travelling fans are finally back and rugby is all the better for it.

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