Rugby World Cup: Nice largely unmoved as rugby carnival passes through

While Toulon is a city steeped in rugby lore, in Nice divas and movie stars of 70 years ago have permanence and agency

Standing Bear by contemporary artist Richard Orlinski is installed with its back to the sea on the Nice promenade.

Orlinski has stationed other pieces around the streets. Wild King, T Rex and Roaring Lion are dotted around the city in a never-before-seen exhibition, which can be viewed day and night. There are 10 spectacularly large sculptures. Everybody knows.

A few hundred metres away, opposite Le Negresco Hotel, two attentive lads stand behind a dais outside its grand doorway dressed in blue jackets and red jodhpurs. Scruffs like us literally don’t get through the door. Le Negresco is celebrating 110 years and has set up an exhibition of old photographs of the people who made the building famous through the decades. It is also on the Promenade des Anglais.

Princess Grace sits in the stately dinning room looking at Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan, the fourth and final wife of the Aga Khan. Rock star Johnny Hallyday is there in a 1960s three-piece suit on the pavement outside looking French, actress Bridget Bardot, ‘Une Bombe’ is pouting and Spanish artist Salvador Dali appears wearing a twirled moustache.


There’s Hollywood too. Anthony Quinn stares at a camera, a guest of Le Negresco while filming Zorba The Greek in 1964. An early, handsome Richard Burton also looks straight to the camera lens sometime before the booze consumed his features. The caption explains it is an early photograph. ‘Before Elizabeth Taylor,’ it says.

But in Nice where is the Rugby World Cup?

On a trip to Toulon on Tuesday we landed in the Springboks’ hotel. Hands down, the defending champions won the accommodation lottery. Situated just on the coast outside of town, the Grand Hotel des Sablettes Hilton sits metres from the lapping Mediterranean.

If the South African hookers were practising Springbok lineout throws from their bedrooms and left the window open, the balls would easily spin to the sea. There is a private gate running through a coffee shop that opens to the beach. Security sits there all day.

On one of the prominent balconies at the front of the hotel hangs a large South African flag and, in the foyer, a self-playing piano bangs out Elton John and Coldplay covers. Curious people walking along the seafront stop and take pictures over the railings.

On the wall at reception a television is programmed for a video loop of various members of the staff passing a World Cup Rugby ball to each other throughout the hotel. It begins with a high shot of a drone sweeping in from the bay and over the sprawling old doll of a property before the ball goes through the kitchens, gym, pool, lobby and finally planted in front of the camera with the logo “Springboks Welcome”.

The World Cup is in Toulon because Toulon is a rugby town and has been since the rugby club was established almost 125 years ago. There is a makeshift sign in the middle of the road near the hotel saying, ‘Bienvenue Aux Springboks’.

In the cafes along the Esplanade Henri Boeuf adjacent to the hotel there are other reminders, a Bok poster with all the names beside the player photographs courtesy of Creperie Les Deux Freres.

But in Nice where is the Rugby World Cup?

There is a thread of a history of rugby in the region. Stade Niçois, a French amateur rugby club based in Nice, was founded in 2012. It currently operates in Nationale, one division below the French professional Top14 and Pro D2 leagues. But, decades ago, another Nice club made it to the final of the national championship in the 1982-83 season.

Rugby Nice Côte d’Azur Université-Racing went into liquidation in 2012 as its successor Niçois came into being but not before they lost to Beziers 14-6 in Parc de Princes in front of a 43,100 attendance in the French championship final.

You can understand what World Rugby have done, farm out the tournament to the regions to evangelise the game, allow people feel part of what is taking place.

Had it been held only in and around Paris, the presence would have been more intense but Paris acting as host for a Rugby World Cup this year and the Olympic Games next year would have chimed badly outside the capital.

There is also the notion that Monsieur president Macron must save money this year to meet the greater demands of the Olympics, which is expected to be lavish. Are they really painting the Eiffel Tower gold? Of course, the tighter purse strings for the Rugby World Cup sent a frisson of paralysing fear throughout the media that there would be no free merch to bring home.

That potential crisis was averted at the accreditation pick up in Stade de Bordeaux with another laptop bag, enough now to fantasise about banging up the house to an A1 rating with an innovative laptop bag insulation project.

Back in Nice, well. Each lamp-post along the seafront does have a ‘Bienvenue’ poster at 100 metre intervals. But the serious eye would be quicker caught by Orlinski’s Standing Bear or a blown-up, grainy monochrome picture of French actress, singer, screenwriter, director, and socialite Jeanne Moreau leaning over a table in the smoke-filled bar in Le Negresco.

Maybe that’s the truth of Nice. Here divas and movie stars of 70 years ago have permanence and agency. And the Rugby World Cup passes through.