Four thousand miles across the sea

Meghan McCallum

As the host country for the 2007 Rugby World Cup, France has been putting up quite a fight to stay in the playoffs. Last Saturday, Oct. 6, Les Bleus managed to pull off an amazing defeat against the New Zealand All Blacks, eliminating them from the tournament. For the first time in World Cup history, the All Blacks will not be playing in the semifinal.
I’ll admit that, even after playing rugby for two years in high school, I didn’t know much about professional rugby before I got here. I didn’t even know that the World Cup was this year, let alone that it was being held here in France. It was evident soon enough, though, between the posters with directions to matches, the hordes of British fans in the pubs on the weekends, and school kids tossing around rugby balls on their recess breaks.
One thing I did know before coming, however, is that the All Blacks are a force to be reckoned with. Since mid-2004, the International Rugby Board has consistently ranked New Zealand as number one in the world. They are generally known as savages of the sport — if the team’s name alone doesn’t intimidate you, check out their pre-game chanting and dancing, called “haka,” on YouTube.
The All Blacks and 19 other worthy teams began this year’s World Cup on Sept. 7, just a few days after my arrival in France. On our IES orientation trip to Vannes, some of the other students and I got into the habit of going out to watch matches at night — they’re shown at practically every café in the country.
At the time, it was mostly a social thing — a way to get to know the area and the other people in the program. As France progresses in the tournament, however, I have been progressing as a spectator.
Matches take place every weekend, and in Nantes’ larger squares there are giant screens set up to watch them. People gather around, either sitting on the concrete or standing, but either way pretty packed together. As the number of teams left in the playoffs gets smaller, the crowds around the screens get larger.
On Saturday night I was planning to watch the France-New Zealand match at one such screen, and left the house a few hours ahead of time to guarantee getting a spot. I had been thinking a lot about the match that day, mostly because I was almost positive it would be France’s last.
After all, of the 46 matches between the two teams since 1903, 34 were won by New Zealand. My host mom told me that it probably wouldn’t be worth going to watch, since France would be destroyed by the All Blacks.
Nevertheless, Charles Ging and I made plans to meet up with my host brother Cassien and some of his friends to watch the game together. As we left the house, my host dad made a bet with Charles. “If France wins,” he said, “I’ll take you two out to dinner.”
Though we showed up early, our group had a hard time finding spots around the big screens. We ended up shoving ourselves into a huge crowd around John McByrne’s, an Irish pub on a street corner. They had a small screen mounted on a balcony above the bar, and the corner was absolutely packed with people watching.
Throughout the game there were unified chants of “Allez les Bleus!” both from the spectators at the game and the people in the streets of Nantes.
The game was looking gloomy for the French when they trailed behind New Zealand 0-13 after 30 minutes of play. Early in the second half, they managed to catch up with the All Blacks, leaving the score 13-all. New Zealand scored one more try (meriting five points), bringing them ahead once again.
What really cost them, though, was that they missed the kick after the try, called a “conversion,” that would have gained them two more points. France took advantage of this mistake and scored both a try and a conversion goal, putting them in the lead at 20-18. With only 12 minutes of play left, the All Blacks didn’t manage to scrounge together the few points they needed to win.
I could feel the crowd’s tension mounting as I watched the minutes tick down on the screen. At zero, the mass of people surrounding me exploded. It was exactly like a crowd at a concert — everyone was jumping up and down and shouting.
It was absolute chaos. Wandering around the city afterward, we encountered celebrations in the form of car horns blaring, shouting in bars, and naked men standing on top of a fountain in one of the city squares. The city stayed up celebrating for most of the night.
Even now, a few days after the match, the excitement of Saturday night hovers over France. Sitting in my bedroom typing, I can hear children at a nearby kindergarten shouting, “Allez Les Bleus!” over and over.
That’s what we’ll be chanting tomorrow night, when Les Bleus take on England in the semifinal. That is, after we eat dinner out — courtesy of my host dad, of course.