The greatest rugby competition in the world - or so they say anyway - kicked off last week. We left sunny France at 8am on Thursday morning, meeting in the club for breakfast at 7, packed the bags, and off we went. The temperatures had been 28 degrees in France. At Blagnac Airport we chartered a flight. Gareth Thomas, or 'Alfie' as we call him, had been hounded all week by French TV and journalists because he was going to back to play in his homeland. He explained to me how they all kept asking the same questions.
'What would it be like to run out and play against his old club and club-mates.' To every one of them he gave the line that he had played with Bridgend and then the Celtic Warriors, that he had never played for Llanelli, and that the rivalry between the two was a bit like Toulouse and Agen here in France, but they didn't seem to understand. He ends up being hounded by one journalist from La Depeche who decides to get one last minute interview off Gareth. It turns out the reporter doesn't have any English so who ends up being the translator? Good old horsebox. Much to my surprise I am able to translate both the journalist's questions and Gareth's answers. Alfie was also impressed, and so too was the journalist.
Since Gareth has arrived he's had a lot of media coverage. Earlier on in the season we had a Welsh tv crew from S4C following him around for a week on our pre-season tour to Banyor Bigorre, which is near Tarbes, to see how he was settling in to his new life in France. All the new players had the traditional head shave and Alfie was shaved like a monk. He was also told he had to grow a moustache, sides and back left, nothing on top. He looked ridiculous, and the spit of our forwards coach Serge Lairle. I managed to be interviewed myself by the tv crew to explain the haircut, and Gareth's intergration into life in France. I said that I was looking after him and it was great to have a new drinking partner, that he's been winning all the competitions with the lads. He loves the Stella. But on his return to Wales, we got rain, rain and more rain.
On the morning of the match out in the hotel car park we're doing the usual few stretches and line-outs. Emile Ntamack comes over and puts his arms around myself and Alfie and says "lads, now I understand why you love France." It wasn't far off a hurricane. The match itself wasn't what you'd call an open, flowing, running affair. We defended for the first-half and were lucky not to have let in at least two tries and we came away with a 9-6 win. The Llanelli boys will look back on this one and feel it was one that got away. Twice they hit the post with penalties. Afterwards, myself and Alfie went into the supporters' bar to have a drink with his family and friends, who had all come up from Bridgend. When I went in, much to my disbelief, I saw a woman in the corner of the bar wearing a fleece with number 72 on it belonging to Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and a scrum cap that I had started the match before discarding it just before half-time.
Eventually I plucked up the courage to go over to the woman and ask her where she got the hat. She told me that her husband jumped onto the pitch at half-time to get the hat. "And where did you get the fleece?" She proceeded to tell me that her husband jumped onto the pitch and took the fleece from the subs' dug-out. I explained to her that the hat belonged to me and the fleece to a team-mate, so could she give them back. Much to my disbelief again, it was a big No. Eventually, by the end of the night, Gareth Thomas' mother managed to get the hat back, but no way was the woman parting with the fleece.
Too much local cider taken on board, I think. Spirits were high on the bus journey when we left Llanelli at 11.00. It always amazes me how these French lads can get up and sing and jump around with no alcohol on board. It's not like at home when you stop at the first off licence, everyone gives in a tenner, fill the bus up with as much beer as you can and off ye go. That's not the done thing here. After another two-and-a-half hour bus journey to Cardiff airport, we arrive into Toulouse at 6am. On Saturday I went to see London Irish play Auch, and meet up with some of the lads like Bobby Casey, Justin Bishop and Barry Everitt. I headed off back to Toulouse, where the London Irish team and supporters were staying aswell, so an invite was given to come down to De Danu. They arrived at 11.00 and the lock-in was much appreciated.
We have a new addition to the family, a Labrador called Biscuit given to us by a neighbour who had a litter of eight, and let's put it this way, if the equivalent in France to the ISPCA or the ISPCC came to visit the Brennan household both the youngest fella Josh and the Labrador would be taken away. I watched them the other day, the dog constantly jumping up on Josh and then he bit him on the arm, whereupon Josh picked the dog up and bit his tail. So we had him screaming and the dog barking. He's only been here a month and he's already one of the family. The eldest, Danny (who's six), is speaking more French than he is English. He starts conversations in French. He thinks sometimes he's a doctor and looks after all my injuries.
I came home the other day with a few cuts on my leg and he was going to strap me up on Saturday morning at 9.00. I was an hour late so when I did come down to me he said: "Tu as oublie (accent aigu, ie like a fada on the e) le rendezvous avec moi, papa?" In other words, did you forget the rendezvous you had with me, and he does say papa. Brilliant. We still have a load of injuries for the match against Glasgow and we know we're not playing well yet. They're not going to be pushovers. They've a massive front five and a very good number eight and six, but the coach, Guy Noves, recognises that we're not playing well. He really had it out with us yesterday morning at training, and has us doing 20 press-ups when balls are dropped and we're not finishing off try-scoring opportunities You can tell there's a different pressure on this week.
An interview by Gerry Thornley.