Crafty idea. Leave for Stade de France at 4pm for the 9pm start. Miss the crowd, gorge on stadium food. The metro train door opens and bodies fall out. These ones do not have green shirts. One has a furry Springbok helmet anchored to his head by a strap around his chin. The right antler can’t stay upright in the humid heat of the carriage and has limply fallen forward. The middle-aged owner of the head covering looks remarkably fresh given his head is essentially in a braai.
They are speaking Afrikaans. Nine hours later and it’s 1am. The media shuttle bus is not where it ought to be. Instead, an ambulance stops to ask if we need assistance. No. But we point towards the ramp from the stadium over the main road, where a group of Irish fans are “lineouting”. Four lifting, one jumper. It’s not Afrikaans they are speaking, but what is it? They need assistance we say.
The madam in Le Relais de Bretagne is old school. The closest place to the digs, it is 97 steps away. Madam is shouting into the phone, which is squeezed between her shoulder and jawbone. It needs to be because she is also opening the wine. Pop, she slams it on the table and walks away, returns seconds later with a plate of free olives frisbeed on to the surface.
Her partner, a distant thing, is mooching around with a tea towel rubbing flat surfaces. Judging by the brusque informality it’s her husband. The Cote de Beouf is similarly delivered, crashing into cutlery. The Rugby World Cup is mentioned and she twirls her hands above her head in a could-not-care-less gesture and screams at the man with the dishcloth. An Asian kid beside me blows on a single chip as madam pushes three tables across the floor with her hip. That’s a racket all right. Note to self: Coming back here.
South again. Hurtling out of Gare de Lyon as fast as French electricity can take us. The TGV moans to a halt an hour out of Paris. Battery problems says Monsieur announcer. This never happens with diesel trains I opine loudly. Surrounded by fields, TGV limps forward at the speed of an e-bike. It’s just shy of 1,000km to Nice via Marseilles. The Scotland match is in 12 days. A butterfly overtakes our carriage. We stop dead for a fourth time. The doors open and people get off and stand in the sun. Yes, they do.
Two South Africans leave first class with their beers, look at the dead TGV. “Dit is kak,” they agree. There is an upside. People in the nearby seats begin to smile at each other. Knowing smiles. Train together, pain together. What a beautiful thing is group suffering. Somewhere mid-France five buzzards spiralling over a field of white Charolais cattle. Small mercies.
Twelve hours on a fast train. Some sort of clown show record that. Now belly up on the daily paddle looking skywards. The undercarriage of a dayglo orange EasyJet steeply banks towards Nice airport so extremely inclined, you can feel the nervous twitching in seat 23D. Today wind means a flight path is along the coastal skyline.
Bike is the best way to get around here. Lanes are everywhere and deliberate slow-down chicanes are built in using plants. The tram runs from the old port through the city to the airport breaking off right towards the hills where Scotland are stationed. Stade Nicois is like a quiet outpost away from the bustle. The espionage prevention measure is the pitch opaquely clingfilmed on all sides. By the tram stop a teenage boy is smoking weed. It’s illegal in France but nobody cares. Pointing at the laptop bag with Rugby World Cup in white lettering, he doesn’t say a word.
That’s not supposed to happen. Two lads lift the chute for it to billow and to allow the wind to catch. Skinny guy guns the engines on Nautlique Ski, a foxy yellow machine, points her nose towards the African continent and goes. The chute lifts but the two paying customers trip, are pulled forward and lightly shredded along the pebble beach. Better late than never, lift saves them. Up they go. A gull view of the bay.
Brunch in the old town is calamari and lightly fizzed Badoit. It does not come back at you down your nose like some Irish fizzy water. There are consequences for wine at this time of the day, although a shady beer at 11.30am seems to be a local preoccupation that’s both tempting and scary. They know when to stop. So does the rugby with the players returning from their break. Andy Farrell is about to point their noses towards Paris.