The ultimate festival of rugby
Tom Hamilton at Stade Jean-Bouin
August 14, 2014
France take on Canada under the Paris lights © Getty Images
Legend has it, the architect who dreamt up the re-jigged Stade Jean-Bouin ensured the stands' roofs behind the posts were built in such a wave-like structure so he could keep his view of the Eiffel Tower from his apartment near the stadium. The rugby lover in you, or romantic, also hopes it was for him to enjoy days such as Wednesday when the sport was showcased in the most staggering, vibrant and exhilarating of lights.
There were three games on show, each aligning neatly against your typical three-course French dejeuner. The entrée of Wales against New Zealand was a procession, but a mere taster of what was to come; then came le plat principal - England's win over Ireland which was sheer gluttony - and then Canada's truly epic win over France. It was the pièce de résistance; you will be hard-pressed to find a better game this year.
Canada celebrate their win © Getty Images
It seems a wonderful coincidence the last time Paris 16th arrondissement hosted an international was Argentina's win over France in the bronze final of the 2007 World Cup. Traditionally such games are non-events, a mere box-ticking exercise of vanity. But the archaic Parc des Princes, which towers over its smaller neighbour, witnessed a remarkable performance from the Pumas seven years ago, complete with Ignacio Corleto's sweeping end-to-end try. Back on October 20 of that year, the French public came in expectation but left stunned.
It was a similar circumstance on Wednesday, but this was a true celebration of rugby.
Such was the general appreciation for what they had just seen, the French public rallied behind their fallen team at the full-time whistle of their defeat to Canada instead of giving them the flak usually seen at the Stade de France following a loss from Philippe Saint-Andre's side. When France were 18-6 down with 20 minutes to go against Canada, instead of the usual boos and flak, came a rallying version of La Marseillaise. France did their best to answer and had Agricole kicked a better record from the tee, there would have had extra-time.
Far too often games outside of the tier one internationals have been played in front of empty stands. The Junior World Championship in New Zealand saw general apathy from those partisan and neutral but when France and Canada walked out from underneath the stand, they were greeted by flying flags, beaming faces and barely any empty seats.
The French public took to the occasion. Agricole's kicks and the points were greeted with a raucous cheer and this was not a French crowd merely turning up with a sense of intrigue, they knew their rugby. Even those of the hardest Tricolour persuasion would have found it hard to not stand in awe, perhaps yelp, at Canada wing Magali Harvey's second-half try. It was the free-flowing, rugby abandon at its best as Canada, partly due to an average kicking game in their midfield, largely decided to run everything from their own 22. Her try was the moment of this World Cup and stacks up with the best of any previous. Had it been a French player who finished off the move, the barbed-wire-chic roof of the Stade Jean-Bouin would have been lifted off its newly welded hinges.
France now have to re-group. Them not reaching Sunday's finale is probably not what the organisers would have wanted, nothing makes a final like the hosts reaching it, but they will still play in front of home support once again in the third/fourth play-off against Ireland who will have some points to prove after their dismantling by England and coach Philip Doyle's frank assessment in the post-match press conference where he criticised their performance.
The loudest cheer in England's game against Ireland, bar Ireland's score which seemed to ignite those who had switched allegiance to Doyle's side as they waited patiently for France's later game, was when Lynne Cantwell managed to walk off the field after an almighty hit. It was empathy mixed with appreciation. As that game continued, Ireland's supporters made more noise than their English counterparts but their various ballads were more in routine than with real vigour.
England enjoy Kat Merchant's try © Getty Images
By chance, on arrival at London St Pancras in the bleary-eyed hours of Wednesday morning, a lone man sat at the piano in the station and played 'Fields of Athenry'. Nearly 18 hours on and the same song was being sung in the Port de Saint-Cloud by the Irish support but it was with the purpose of consoling one another rather than toasting a victory.
Sunday's final between England and Canada will be a special occasion but the debate in the bars around the stadium on Wednesday evening and the early hours of Thursday concerned whether the day at the Stade Jean-Bouin they had just witnessed was perhaps the finest in women's rugby history. For ex-England captain Gill Burns, who was part of their 1994 World Cup-winning side, she still looks back on that win over the USA in Edinburgh as that being their milestone moment, but Wednesday, you feel was a watershed moment for the game.
There is still room for improvement, the officiating needs resolving as it is below-par and it is still an amateur game but as England coach Gary Street said "Sunday is going to be one hell of a day".
Perhaps it is fanciful idealism but rugby as a whole could look at Wednesday's two semi-finals, games played without financial or political pressures, and remember what the true essence of the sport is really about - sheer guts, team spirit and moments of magic. Sometimes a timely reminder is needed.
© Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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