Nearly bye bye Brian in Nantes

England score early doorsThree weeks into the Rugby World Cup and England’s campaign was in tatters. They had started with a wimper against USA, been embarrassed by South Africa and now faced a do or die game against Samoa who had started the tournament in a worse situation after being thumped by South Africa and narrowly beaten by Tonga meaning that they too had to win. Pressure had built up on both coaches. Former All Blacks legend Michael Jones and England coach Brian Ashton, especially since senior players including Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt had been very outspoken publically about the training sessions where nobody seemed to have a clue.

Going into this match the script was simple – A win and England had almost guaranteed a knock out phase berth. Defeat and they could almost pack their bags and jump on the nearest Eurostar home. The good news was that England’s most famous rugby son Johnny Wilkinson had been passed fit at last.

The game was being played in Nantes, the jewel in the western Atlantic coast region of France, a city that is more known for its football team and its famous son Jules Verne than rugby. Less than a week after flying into rural France to watch the South African game, traveling to Paris via the wonderful little town of Tours. This time I had manage to pull a new destination out of the budget airline bag – Angers. Nantes had few real options – the small airport there was only really served by Ryanair but unsurprisingly the outbound flights were all snapped up within seconds of this fixture being announced. However, I did manage to get a return flight back to Stansted on the Sunday morning for less than £75 which was a bargain. Other options I looked at included flying to Paris and getting a TGV as well as hiring a car from Calais and driving. I was due to meet up with Ginger Pete and his crew again, who had motored down from Paris in their giant camper van.

The Angers option had come about thanks to the great website Skyscanner (http://www.skyscanner.net) which told me that a Saturday 10am flight was available from Southampton to Angers for just £25 thanks to FlyBE. Southampton Airport is wonderful. Just an hour from Waterloo with its own station and small enough to pass through in just 10 mins it was also free from the “gutter” airlines. An hour delay wasn’t anticipated and would add some pressure to getting there in time to pick up my accreditation but in almost executive jet fashion the journey takes just 35 minutes from take off to landing.

Angers is another one of those tiny airports that has little in the way of facilities. It is also in the middle of nowhere – actually 25 miles from Angers itself, and thus we have to spend longer on the bus than we did in the air to get to the central station. I meet a fellow fan who was forced onto the flight after those lovely chaps at Ryanair had denied him boarding at Bournemouth earlier in the day after he turned up 40 minutes before departure, and with no-one waiting at security and a journey from check in to the gate of less than 1 minute AND the flight not yet boarding. Oh waht nice people.

The way the media accreditation worked in France was that you applied for a game, you were allocated a game and then you had to get there at least an hour before kick off. Otherwise they gave you ticket away. This trip wasn’t going to be an issue at first, but the hour delay, the 50 minute bus trip and then a monstrously slow train journey was adding to my pressure of making it in time. I changed by plans from a beer with Ginger Pete, to a tram and finally to a taxi but when I arrived at Nantes SNCF station I was met with a wall of England fans all trying to get a tram or a taxi to the stadium which was around 5km out of town. I eventually managed to squeeze myself on a tram and joined in the singing. Everyone goes on about the different level of behaviour between Football and Rugby fans. Football fans would sing songs like “Who the F@cking hell are you” whilst those gentlemanly rugby fans would sing songs like “Beastiality is best”- obviously a different class when they sing “shoot your load up a toad boys, shoot your load up a toad”.

The tram couldn’t have taken any longer. With the mid September sunshine beating down on the glass, and movement an impossibility, a couple of the passengers fainted – necessitating the need to stop the tram. With 4 stops still to go I reached the hour deadline. I was now stuck. I could try and haggle for a ticket from a tout, having come all this way but I had plan B up my sleeve- say I had had my pocket picked by the unscrupulous French and beg mercy. It wasn’t necessary. With 30 minutes until kick off I walked into an empty media centre and picked up a ticket, a mixed zone pass and full access to the press conference. I was even given a prime seat with my own desk and TV monitor – nice!

The game started well for England as they powered over the line within 45 seconds to take the lead thanks to captain Martin Corry. The returning saint Wilkinson adds the extras, and within 3 minutes he had added 3 more points from a drop goal to make in 10-0. The next twenty minutes are spent trading penalties as England always look likely to break away but just fail in that final pass. Paul Sackay, the England star of the tournament so far goes over at last to give England a 23-12 lead at the half.

Within ten minutes of the restart Samoa are within 4 points as 2 penalties and a try bring them right back into the game. The scores stay that way for nearly 25 minutes as England nervously hold on, and Samoa nervously fumble and find themselves offside every time they get close to the England line. With their World Cup and tournament hanging by a thread England step up a gear and two late tries by Sackay and Corry put a false gloss on the end result – a 44-22 win is enough to eliminate Samoa and set England up with a winnable game versus Tonga.

The press conference is quite funny. Michael Jones quits,preferring to return to a well paid legal job in Auckland than manage the Samoans. Brian Ashton plays down the fact that England had come within a decent pass of going out and rues some of the referring decisions. Afterwards in themixed zone I get a word with George Chutter who is a friend of a friend and happy to recommend a pub or two for later in the evening.

I headed back into the town and met up with Ginger Pete in a nice backstreet restaurant, listening to stories of their week of trying to live of the land (whilst he was sneaking off to Auchan every day for a bit of french bread and brie). Dinner was excellent and unexpected. Rabbit, prawns and pate had all come locally and were all excellent, as too were the wines. I left the party just before 11pm to try and find my hotel, which appeared to be at the end of tram line 3. Twenty minutes later I was walking down a long road full of warehouse type shops looking for my ETAP hotel. 30 minutes later I still hadn’t found it and had to resort to a phone call back to CMF who was ecstatic to be woken up, go downstairs, turn on the computer and try to talk me through the directions (I had not actually got off at the end of the line but 3 stops from the end at a stop that sounded similar).

So a good day out in the end coupled with a decent dinner had left me in good spirits. The following morning I had a couple of hours to wander the old town which was very impressive and certainly one for the future – perhaps one day when West Ham play here in the UEFA Cup – because that is going to happen!

It was just left for me to get back to Nantes Airport. Of course it was Sunday which meant that no public transport ran so it was left to an expensive taxi to take me on the tour of the bits they don’t want you to see (Prostitutes, derelict buildings and boot fairs – disgraceful!) before I hopped on my flight back home Sunday lunch. It has all been very close for England and Brian, but he was free to fight another day.

About the Stade de la Beaujoire
The Beaujoire was designed in the early 1980’s as a replacement for FC Nantes compact Marcel-Saupin stadium that was located in the same area, and to meet the demand for a new west coast stadium for France’s bid to host the European Football Championships of 1984.  Out went the old steep terraces and basic seating and in came a brand new stadium full of curves and sweeping stands and a significantly increased capacity at over 53,000.

The stadium hosted its first match in May 1984 when FC Nantes played a friendly against the Romanian national team.  Just a few weeks later the stadium welcomed the French national team as they hosted Belgium in a sell out group match of the Championships.  A Platini-inspired performance saw Les Blues beat their neighbours 5-0.  The stadium also hosted Portugal versus Romania, although a 24,000 crowd was disappointing.

Fourteen years later, after a multi-million Franc redevelopment which saw the stadium converted into a 38,000 all seater ground, Le Beaujoire hosted a number of games in the 1998 World Cup Finals, including Brazil versus Morocco, Spain versus Nigeria, USA versus Yugoslavia and the quarter final between Brazil and Denmark.

The stadium is certainly unique in design.  Two huge Tribune stands that sweep upwards in the middle provide a focal point for the stadium, whilst behind the goals the smaller Visage stands are intimate and home to some of the most vocal supporters in France.

Who plays there?
The stadium is home to FC Nantes Atlantique, who up until a few seasons ago were one of the most feared teams in France.  Their eight French Championships make them one of the most successful teams in the domestic leagues – however, the club went from champions in 2001 to bottom of the table in 2007 – one of the most spectacular falls from grace in French football and ending a near 45 year run in the top flight.

The club won their first honours in 1965 when they captured the French league, repeating their feat a year later.  Over the next couple of decades they won four more Championships. Between 1976 and 1981 the club set a record for remaining unbeaten at home for 92 matches.   In 1995 they captured their greatest Championship when they narrowly pipped Paris Saint Germain, Auxerre and Lens to the title, recording 32 games without defeat in the process.  The following season they competed for the first time in the Champions League.  Drawn in an easy group with Panathinaikos, Porto and AaB, they gained a vital point away in Portugal to go through to the quarter finals.  A 4-2 victory against Spartak Moscow took the Canaries through to the semi finals where they met the mighty Juventus.  Facing a 2-0 deficit from Turin, Nantes put on a brave show back at the Beaujoire and nearly turned over the 2-0 lead, falling just short in a 3-2 win.

In 2000 the club were nearly on the receiving end of one of the greatest cup shocks in French history when they narrowly beat the amateurs of Calais in the French Cup Final at Stade de France.
The club had to wait until 2001 for their final championship – the last time a club apart from Lyon has taken the title.  The following season the club again performed well in the Champions League, winning the first round group against PSV Eindhoven, Lazio and Galatasaray.  Unfortunately they could not carry this form into the second stage where draws at home to Manchester United and Boavista were their only points from a tough group.

In 2006/07, hopes were high for at least a UEFA Cup spot.  Unfortunately the team never found any consistency, and by Christmas were close to the relegation zone.  In what was planned to be an inspired move, veteran goalkeeper Fabian Barthez was signed from Marseille.  Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse and their run of form saw them relegated for the first time in over 44 years.

Occasionally, the National team have played here, although the last time they visited was back in 2001 for a friendly versus Denmark.  In September and October 2007 the stadium will host a number of matches in the Rugby World Cup including the match between England and Samoa.  The French team have played a few games here over the years – the most famous game being a French win versus the All Blacks in November 1986.

How to get there
The stadium is located in the north west of the city, adjacent to the E62 main road and around 7km from the city centre.  Around the stadium are some nice wooded picnic areas, and it does feel as if it is in the suburbs with little in the way of bars and cafes in the immediate area.

The easiest way to reach the stadium from the city centre is to catch the tramway number 1 to the end stop which is right outside the stadium.  The journey from the city centre takes no more than 20 minutes.  Bus numbers 1, 22, 71 and 76 also make the journey to the stadium.

Getting a ticket
FC Nantes are one of the best supported teams in France.  With average attendances of close to 30,000, getting a ticket still isn’t a problem for most matches.  Tickets can be purchased from the official website at http://www.fcna.fr. You can also purchase tickets from around the region in the Leclerc stores.  Some of the best seats for the neutrals are in the Credit Mutuel Oceane Bas which is one of the side tribunes where tickets are €25.  Behind the goal in the Presse Ocean Erdre a seat would set you back €15.

Getting around
Public Transport in Nantes consists of tramways and buses.  The tramways date back to 1826, and are used as a model for a number of other cities around the world.  The tram network is today the largest of its kind in France.  Whilst the majority of the attractions are within walking distance, the trams and buses provide a cheap alternative to getting around.

Local Hotels & Bars
Nantes has a number of areas where you will find plenty of hotels.  The area around the central station has a number of the most popular chains such as Mecure and Holiday Inn where rooms are reasonable.  Also, you will find a number of independent hotels on the banks of the river.  Most of them have websites where you can make bookings, although if you need a hand when you arrive then the Tourist Information office at 3 cours Olivier de Clisson – or by telephone at +33 8 92 46 40 44.
The following hotels are good value independent-owned hotels.

Hotel Pommeraye – 2 Rue Boileau
Tel: +33 2 40 48 78 79  http://www.hotel-pommeraye.com
Hotel de France – 24 Rue Crebillon
Tel: +33 2 40 73 57 91  http://www.hotelfrancenantes.com
L’Abbaye de Villeneuve – Les Sorinieres
Tel: +33 2 40 04 04 25  http://www.abbaydevilleneuve.com

Nantes gastronomy is dominated by the sea, and you will find hundreds of excellent bars and restaurants with full menus of fresh fish and seafood.  The following are excellent choices, but can be very busy at the weekend.

Lou Pescadou – 8 Allée Baco (Tel: +33 2 40 35 29 50)
La Cigale – 4 Place Graslin (Tel: +33 2 51 84 94 94)
Villa Mon Reve – Rt Bordes Loires (Tel: +33 2 40 03 55 50)
The main drinking scene is centred on the area called Bouffay.  In this area you will find all different bars including:-

SNUC Brewery – 74 Boulevard des Anglais
Le Bar du Coin – 21 Rue de la Juiverie
Brithotel Amandine – 45 Boulevard des Batignolles

If you want to find a bar for a Guinness or two, and a place to watch some Premiership football then head for one of the following bars:-

John MacByrne – 21 Rue des Petites Ecuries 4
Le Graslin – 1 Rue Racine
Webb Ellis Café Rugby – 6 Rue Santeuil

Nearest Airport – Nantes Atlantique (NTE)
Telephone:  +33 2 40 69 22 22
Website:  http://www.Nantes-aeroport.fr

Nantes Atlantique airport is located around 15 minutes from the city centre.  There is a regular bus that runs to the central station in 20 minutes.  Tickets cost €6 each way.  Alternatively you can catch bus 37 which runs to the La Neustrie tramway on line 2.

The airport’s route map is expanding every year, and currently there are a number of options to reach here from the UK.  This includes Aer Arann from Bristol, Cardiff and Manchester, GB Airways from London Gatwick and Ryanair from Bournemouth, East Midlands and London Stansted.

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