The Côte Vermeille, not far from Perpignan, is the stretch of wild coast that leads to French Catalonia and Spain. It is where the Fauvists, led by Henri Matisse, vividly sprang to life for a short time in the early part of the 20th Century.
It was here we found ourselves listening to our kindly European Rugby Cup (ERC) hosts talk of Matisse and how his family spent summers in the town of Collioure on the Mediterranean with its famous harbour and surrounding cork oak woodlands.
The literal translation for Fauvist is ‘wild beast.’ Perhaps that hadn’t occurred to the ERC, who had kindly taken us to Collioure for dinner in 2003 because the Heineken Cup final was taking place in a couple of weeks.
In the restaurant they spoke of the great masters like Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, whose house in Spain was not so far away. Work now worth millions was, almost 100 years before, handing over for meals.
Essentially, we were there doing the same thing. The ERC were handing over food and local olive oil so beautiful in quality, they said, that we could pull the cork and neck it from the bottle. For that we would sell a rugby match taking place in Lansdowne Road between two teams from the South of France, Perpignan and Toulouse.
The ERC, you imagine, felt they had been badly let down by the Irish clubs. Leinster and Munster had made it through to the semi-final stage and one or two of the Irish teams in a Dublin European Cup final had serious bum-on-seats appeal.
Munster faced Toulouse and led until the 75th minute when Freddie Michalak’s dive into the corner sent hopes tail spinning towards the exit.
Leinster, coached by Matt Williams, had been told to play the match, not the event. They were on the cusp of fulfilling their huge potential. They also took the lead against Perpignan with Brian O’Meara hitting the only score of the first half.
By the break Brian O’Driscoll, nominated for a second time the previous year for IRB World Player of the Year, had been forced off through injury. Gordon D’Arcy pushed Leinster ahead but like Munster, they too surrendered the lead in the final 10 minutes with a late try from Marc dal Maso for a 14-21 defeat.
Both Irish teams had been beaten leaving an incredulous ERC with the empty Lansdowne Road to fill with two French sides. So, there we were in Catalan France at the most southerly of its wine regions sipping on bottles of Les Clos de Paulilles Collioure Rouge and wondering how many times the lighthouse had been depicted by the famously poor artists.
In hindsight we did as well as we could. The final Lansdowne Road was more than half full when 28,600 turned up. Former Irish flanker, endearingly known as one of the ‘Fauves’ of Irish rugby, Trevor Brennan, led Toulouse out on to the field.
Brennan also knew how to make an exit.
The Irish backrow would later depart from Kiely’s in Donnybrook and, in a cross-city dash, was driven to Dublin Airport by a squad car to join his team-mates on their flight home.
Still, the 2003 final was one of the lowest attended. Apart from the Covid hit years, just the first European final played between Toulouse and Cardiff in Cardiff Arms Park in 1996 drew less with 21,800.
In 2020, Exeter Chiefs beat Racing ‘92 in Bristol behind closed doors in a final that officially had zero fans watching, while the following year another pandemic-affected tournament ended in Twickenham, where 10,000 watched Toulouse beat La Rochelle for a record fifth win.
What remains similar to 20 years ago is that Leinster are again playing in runaway train mode. Again, they seem in the mood to convert promise to gain by galloping through the pool matches and towards the knock-out phase with no small degree of panache.
As one of three unbeaten teams, Leinster have scored over 40 points more and conceded less than any of the other 24 clubs in Pool A and B.
Facing Racing 92 this weekend and on course to be the top seeds in the knock-out phase would, just like 2003, secure an advantageous tenancy in Dublin right up to the final.
Things change and things remain the same. Joshua Brennan, son of Trevor, is now playing and could well feature on Sunday against Munster, having recently signed a new deal to keep him in Stade Toulousain until 2026.
Twenty years on and the old Lansdowne Road with its famous rivers of urine has blossomed into a modern Aviva Stadium and the ERC has become the EPCR. The tournament can also stand on its own.
These days there seems to be little need to order ahead for quality wine and olive oil, or, begin the planning phase for another European road trip.
While the EPRC would enjoy an Irish team in this year’s final, if it is two French teams still standing in May the fear factor is gone. Precedent has been set.
Ten years after the 2003 meeting, it happened again with an Irish venue. Clermont beat Munster in the 2013 semi-final before former England outhalf, Jonny Wilkinson, kicked Toulon to the first of three wins in a row. Without the fine dining of Collioure it was played in a full Aviva Stadium.