Gerry Thornley: This World Cup probably couldn’t be in a better rugby country

Rugby may be the 10th biggest sport in France in terms of playing numbers, but its popularity as a sporting spectacle is clear to see

Confession time again. This isn’t half bad, and for all the apparent cost-cutting compared to the last time the tournament was here, and the tortuous journeys, running out of water and beer in both the Stade de France and Stade de Bordeaux last week, etc. etc. the tens of thousands who have turned campsites and match cities into little corners of Ireland, they appear to be having a blast so far.

Once again then, we can all agree that the choice of France as the host country just four World Cups after the tournament was last here was assuredly a blessing. Nor, when hearing stories of the rain and fires being lit back home, can we really complain about the heat.

Even Tours, with its buzzy and charming old town in the city centre, has become a home from home. The TGVs, although the quality of the wifi can vary, and buses and trams in Tours, Bordeaux and Nantes, are almost as efficient as the bullet trains and underground trains in Tokyo.

Some of us travelled in the adjoining carriage to the squad on the TGV from Tours to Nantes on Thursday, although there was certainly no mingling with them. As well as the plain clothed counter-terrorist guards who are their constant companions, the squad have been accompanied by a heavy security presence of armed transport police. Apparently, the Irish squad are among the five countries requiring the highest category of security, along with the hosts, New Zealand, South Africa and England.


This heavy security presence has been the case to and from training in Tours, and the squad were cordoned off from the public on the platform in the station, before being taken to their luxurious base on the outskirts of Nantes.

Ala Kubrik in Tours, the first task today, as ever, is to find a cafe/restaurant with a work desk, power points, good coffee, friendly staff and, of course, wifi, and which stays open in the afternoon. It can be a lot of boxes to tick in France, but l’epicerie on Place du Bouffay does just that, with the bonus of a window table to watch the world go by, and as a real bonus, it has air conditioning!

Nantes has provided no respite from the heat. The temperature is 27 degrees, unseasonably hot for Brittany to the north. The taxi driver to the Irish hotel on Thursday, close to Saturday’s venue the Stade de La Beaujoire, reiterates that the stadium is home to the Nantes Ligue 1 side and that this is not rugby territory, which is in the south.

Indeed, Stade Nantais have just climbed two divisions in successive seasons to return to Fédérale 1, which is the fifth tier of club rugby in France.

Yet, ala Bordeaux if not even more so, virtually all the crowded bars and brasseries on Thursday night in the centre ville had outdoor and indoor big screens showing the France-Uruguay game. None of this audience across the entirety of the country and its 65 million population are included in the official TF1 average audience of 11.8 million, with a peak of more than 13 million during the match.

These are the second highest viewing figures in France this year, second only to the 15.4 million viewers on average for the France-All Blacks opening game.

Rugby may be the 10th biggest sport in France in terms of registered playing numbers, but its popularity as a sporting spectacle is only exceeded by football, and the buy-in for a home World Cup compared to 2007 looks vastly greater, be it the windows, Irish bars, flags, TV screens, train debates, radio discussions and simply the amount of blue visible to the naked eye.

That said, most commentators were decidedly underwhelmed by the French performance against Uruguay, which confirmed the impressions of the last four years and the warm-up matches, that as much as any other squad there is a significant fall-off between France’s first and second teams.

As in Bordeaux, there’s also a vast number of green-shirted and/or pale skinned supporters already in situ in Nantes. Outside the boulangerie beside my hotel in a business district on the island in Nantes, there are five customers – all Irish.

Mary and Eddie Kelly, from West Wicklow, have cycled from their campsite, Belle Riviere, an hour or so away, which they say is bedecked in tricolours. Like others, they’ve come over in their camper van, and for five weeks, stopping off in ROG-country, Île de Ré in La Rochelle, en route to Bordeaux and now here. They’re taking in all but the South African game of Ireland’s four pool matches as they can’t acquire tickets for that one.

Despite that, and some of the difficulties around match venues, they tell stories of French efficiency and hospitality, revealing that their campsite will lay on a bus for all the Irish supporters to Saturday’s game against Tonga.

“We’re here to have fun,” says Mary, “not complain.”

For them, and most of the Green Army one suspects, the World Cup probably couldn’t be in a better rugby country.