Meeting My Top 14 Heroes… Or Trying To

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Our Top 14 expert du-jour, James Harrington, has a better half, and she loves rugby almost as much as he does – unlike him she doesn’t pretend to understand the offside laws. Here, she discusses heading to Castres Olympique’s Stade Pierre Antoine to meet her heroes, and the new recruits ahead of the new season. Ladies and gentlemen, Scheenagh Harrington!

This time last season there was a stand over there...
This time last season there was a stand over there…

CASTRES, FRANCE – The thought of undergoing any kind of operation is frightening, but the open-heart surgery taking place at Stade Pierre Antoine in Castres was even more startling than I expected.

We are lucky enough to live in the intimate little stadium’s shadow (even if that means leaning out of the window a bit) and, in recent weeks, we have been vaguely curious passers by as one of the stands was demolished. The powers that be are taking baby steps towards having a ground that will rival others in the Top 14, and prevent showpiece matches being shipped off to other, bigger and swankier, venues.

Although I’ve been well aware of what was happening, it was all at a distance – a bit like getting your appointment card for surgery, and not realising how close the date actually is. But when I scooted along to the stadium on July 18 to check out the new Castres Olympique kit and the team who would be wearing it, I wasn’t prepared for the shocks in store.

The whole of one side of the stadium had completely gone. In its place was a white wall of sheet metal, while rising up on either side were the smaller tribunes, or stands, gazing mournfully at the place where their bigger brother had been. And it wasn’t the only change that was going to be driven home during the evening to come.

Last year, after Castres Olympique were crowned Top 14 champions and the public was invited to come and meet the team for the new season, we were allowed to walk on the hallowed Pierre Antoine turf. Children could have a bash at kicking at goal, and we could sit on the sidelines as the players went through a photo opportunity run-out, before popping inside and changing into that season’s new kit. It was an amazing experience.

This year however, the barriers were up.

SAM_0863The pelouse was off limits and we, the fans, were not allowed within 20 feet of the players, coaching staff or even the club President, Pierre-Yves Revol – who I had kissed on the cheek last year.

I was hemmed in, and although all I wanted was a few good shots of the players and perhaps a couple of quotes, it was quickly apparent that was not going to happen. Nor would there be the fun, familial atmosphere that had my eyes popping this time last summer – quite possibly because there’s a building site along one length of the pitch where a stand used to be.

Change. They say it comes to us all, but I’ve never been a fan. The new kit, when it was paraded before the several hundred fans who had gathered in the stand behind me… well, it’s probably best said that it will take some time for me to get use to.

There was no Rory Kockott, Remi Tales, Brice Mach or Richie Gray, and even Ibrahim Diarra’s megawatt grin couldn’t charge up what seemed a slightly subdued atmosphere. What the hell was going on? Had I stumbled into some warped parallel universe?

Making matters worse, I couldn’t hear what was being said during the interviews and speeches because some woman standing next to me decided to have the loudest conversation known to humankind on her mobile phone, while smoking a cigarette that she insisted on blowing over my eight-month-old son.

Sitiveni Sivivatu
Sitiveni Sivivatu

So much for feeling like I belonged. So much for passion and pride. I was irritated beyond belief, frustrated and disappointed, all in one hot, horrible bundle. Before I knew it, the event was over, and the players had vanished into the changing rooms – along with the opportunity for a quick snap and chat with some of the newcomers (I was looking, hopefully, your way, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Johnny Beattie).

As a fan, I know the score: on the pitch, the team is ours – we belong to them every bit as much as they belong to us. Off the pitch it’s the opposite: they have the right to privacy just the same as us. It doesn’t stop me going a bit funny whenever I see Brice Mach in the market, or Remi Tales in a cafe but, hey, that’s just me.

This evening was supposed to be, at least in my mind, a blurring of those lines – to allow we the people into our heroes’ lives, if only for a little while.

Janni Bornman (left)
Janni Bornman (left)

But I didn’t get the chance to sound off, because a ray of sunshine fell in the form of Janni Bornman, Castres Olympique’s epic South African number 6. His young son has kicked a rugby ball about with our eldest boy once or twice, and we frequent the same family friendly soft play areas. Sometimes at the same time.

He was walking to his car after leaving Pierre Antoine, and broke into a big, beaming smile when he saw us. As we walked along, he answered the couple of questions I plucked up the courage to ask, and was engaging and polite. In short: a consummate professional. That tiny little bit of human contact rescued what had been – for me – a rubbish evening, and at the same time made me realise that I’d been a little bit childish and stupid.

Of course change will come, as it always must, and no, it’s not always a bad thing. Maybe when the gaping wound at Pierre Antoine has been replaced by a healthy new stand I will see that stopping people – both players and public – from going onto the pitch that evening was an act of protection, rather than prevention.

I know I’ll get my photos with the team when the whistle blows on Castres Olympique’s first game of the new season at Pierre Antoine. I know it’s not the club’s fault some random Francaise chose to stand next to me and chew the fat with whoever, nor were they to blame that I couldn’t summon up the courage to tell her to shut her mouth so I could listen to Mr Revol, and I know my not liking the new kit won’t cause anyone to lose any sleep. Though it might cost them 40 euros, as I’m not going to buy one.

What I wish, sitting here in the shadow of the stadium and reading this back, is that I’d known all that before setting foot out of my front door. Maybe then I’d have been in a better frame of mind to accept the changes happening around me, and just go with the flow.

That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@ :RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.

About James Harrington 196 Articles
James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"