Rugby is certainly big in this part of southern France. But the French side’s uninspiring performance in the lead-up to the final apparently left many residents undecided about heading to the small town’s sports bar to watch the game.
In the event, it was standing room only at Le Marigny, the bar at the end of Cotignac’s tree-lined main street, and Les Bleus’ inspired effort had the crowd spontaneously breaking into La Marseillaise whenever the All Blacks’ line looked threatened. It was a thrill to be there for the occasion.
We had already noticed several pointers to rugby’s high profile in southern France, unusual in a continent obsessed with football played with a round ball, the so-called beautiful game.
In Nice, on the French Riviera about an hour’s drive southeast of Cotignac, the local newspaper on the Friday before the Cup final gave equal billing to the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the despot from just the other side of the Mediterranean, and a game preview.
On the route between Nice and Cotignac, we stopped to visit a nuclear-fusion research facility. At the gate the names Tana Umaga and Sonny Bill Williams came up in a conversation with a pair of security guards in which the only words we all understood were to do with rugby.
It’s not just the males of the region who appreciate the game.
“Rugby is a beautiful sport,” said Bernadette, who ran La Licorne bed and breakfast in Cotignac, where my partner, teenage daughter and I stayed. Just to be clear, Bernadette added she had no liking for soccer.
Cotignac proved such an appealing town and La Licorne such a refreshing change from slightly down-at-heel hotels that we decided to stay a couple of nights. Not that it was easy to make our way to our lodgings.
Anyone but a courier driver has little need for a GPS to show the way on New Zealand streets, but they’re an essential travel companion for a European road trip. Ours spoke to us in the voice of Jane, who could cheerfully have moonlighted as a BBC newsreader.
For the most part Jane gave faultless directions. But already in Nice we’d discovered that sometimes what she considered a route fit for a car was really better suited to a donkey. At one point a passing cyclist magically made a bollard disappear so we could extract ourselves from a dead-end street.
Relations with our well-spoken guide almost broke down in Cotignac as a couple of times we found ourselves heading down steep and increasingly narrow alleys. The only way out was the way we’d come in – backwards, uphill and with no chance of turning for about 100m.
Eventually, another friendly local came to the rescue, showing us where we could leave the car and taking us on foot to La Licorne.
The day before the Cup final we set off as pedestrians to take in the sights of Cotignac. The town’s tall houses were decorated with blue-painted shutters, the alleys were full of cats, and at dusk the skies were disturbed by flocks of swallows.
Overlooking the town were two crumbling towers at the top of a cliff into which a now dried-up waterway had carved grottos. In one shadowy street we passed half-a-dozen galleries, suggesting the place was a destination for tourists during the holiday season, and we noticed posters tacked to walls announcing the next day’s quince festival.
On Cup final day we tossed up whether to watch the game at
La Licorne with Bernadette and husband Eric, or see if we could tuck ourselves into a corner of Le Marigny. We opted for the bar.
There was no hiding in the corner – we had to fight our way in the door, after first negotiating the crowd gathering outside to sample the various quince jams and other products of the pear-like fruit for which, along with rosé, Cotignac is known.
Apart from us Kiwis in the bar, there was a sprinkling of refugees from the English weather for whom Cotignac was now home. One was William, a builder from Durham in the north of England, who had a €10 bet on France.
The rest of the crowd was solidly French. They joined in loudly as their anthem was sung, and clearly enjoyed Hayley Westenra’s rendition of our national song. Then came the haka. It was spine-tingling to have the bar go quiet as the All Blacks did their utmost to scare the daylights out of Les Bleus.
“We don’t think we can beat the All Blacks – they’re too good,” an English-speaking Frenchman said to us. Once the game was under way, however, they began to think differently. When they saw the possibility of an upset, the tension and noise in the bar rose, and the oompah band outside in the street was urged to bang out La Marseillaise.
If the French were tense, we were more so, knowing how much New Zealand had invested in the Cup, not just in money, but also in emotion. With the All Blacks holding onto their one-point victory, there was visible disappointment in the bar, but no ill will towards us, by now outed as being from Nouvelle-Zélande. The locals were generous losers, congratulating us as though we’d had a hand in the win ourselves.
It was a good outcome, thought one of the English, who recognised how much it would mean to New Zealand. At the same time it would be good for rugby, because it showed there wasn’t a great gap between the northern and southern hemisphere games.
William’s €10 bet hadn’t come off, but that was nothing compared with the loss of his pay packet while out on the town the previous night.
And for Cotignac’s French residents, they’d lost the rugby, but they had the quince festival to enjoy, which was still jamming the street outside Le Marigny.