PO – La passion de l’ovalie
with Frank Parkinson
Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool Football Club, once said that “football isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that”. In the PO, the passion for the oval ball, be it Rugby à quinze (union) or Rugby à treize (league) is just as great.
In a department of less than 450,000 people there are two major clubs: USAP, the current rugby union champions of France, and the Catalans Dragons, who play in the Super League along with eleven clubs from the North of England, one from London and one from Wales.
USAP (l’Union Sportive Arlequins Perpignanais) has the bigger following, with the stadium Aimé Giral (la cathédrale) holding nearly 15,000 spectators as opposed to Gilbert Brutus, which holds about 9000 Dragons fans.
Aimé Giral is named in honour of the young fly-half of the immediately pre First World War Perpignan team that won the French championship, and then went on to be wiped out in the following months of war. To this day l’USAP play in a light blue jersey that is the same colour as that worn by the French soldiers in that conflict.
USAP play in the purely French Top 14, except when they get into the European Rugby Cup, when they might meet clubs from Italy or any of the British Isles. Unfortunately, the 2009/2010 ERC season has proved to be somewhat of a disaster for l’USAP, as they lost the first game of their campaign to the Italian club Treviso – an unprecedented defeat that effectively put an end to their prospects of getting through to the quarter finals, and one they will find hard to live down!
It is easy to know when the Dragons are playing at home – you can see hundreds of pale English supporters taking in the PO sunshine while quaffing huge amounts of beer, much to the delight of the grateful Perpignan bar owners.
Playing away, of course, supporters from the sun-drenched south of France don’t seem to understand the delight to be had from spending a wet winter weekend in Wigan, Warrington or the like, and so there are more Catalans on the field than in the stands!
And so to the game itself – rugby is not just about big men playing with funny shaped balls. It is a simple game with complex rules – at least rugby union is – and a game that no-one, not the players, and certainly not the referee, fully understands. The fans, of course, understand everything, and cheer, hiss or boo accordingly. But for all the noise and excitement, there is never any crowd trouble at a match of rugby. Supporters of both teams mix freely in the stands – all aggression is confined to the playing field.
Certainly there is much more money in soccer than there is in rugby, and many would say more skill. Yet rugby has an unusual advantage for a major sport – there is a role for both the slightly-built, skilful ball player on the wings, as well as the heavy, lumbering giant providing the muscle in the scrum.
The scrum is the perfect place for the costaud Catalan, and sure enough USAP’s captain, Nicolas Mas, is a regular in the French national side. Getting the right balance between strength and speed is an eternal problem for the team manager, yet when he does, what a spectacle the game can be!
In France, as in the UK, rugby is played all over the country, but some regions seem to dominate. Here, most of the major clubs have historically hailed from the south, with Perpignan, possibly because of the lack of a first-class soccer team, always in the upper echelon.
But in the PO there is more to rugby than the two main teams in Perpignan. The amateur teams from all over the department have a great following, and the ladies team of Toulouges (now allied to USAP) have been regularly champions of France, and provide many members of the French ladies international side.
Last year in particular the pride that the PO takes in its rugby clubs was especially evident. When USAP won the Bouclier de Brennus, the French championship, they received a tumultuous welcome home from Paris, with thousands lining the Basse, bands playing, banners and streamers everywhere – even the buses in Perpignan changed their destination displays to show “Allez USAP”.
So now the Dragons are beginning another season, while USAP are more than half-way through theirs. Win or lose, the PO passion for the oval ball will warm the coldest winter day.