This weekend, my friend Jon and I treated ourselves to a weekend in Lyon, one of France’s great cities, for the two European club rugby finals. Both France v England clashes: on Friday evening, Montpellier v Harlequins in the Challenge Cup final – rugby’s Europa League. And on Saturday, Racing 92 of Paris v Saracens. Our excuse was seeing Quins, of course, but we got tickets to the Saturday final too.
Both matches were held at the Parc Olympique Lyonnaise, a new stadium just finished, rather late, for the European football championships this summer. It’s another magnificent structure, and when full on Saturday, absolute boomed with atmosphere.
Quins came into the game off that disastrous 24-62 home reverse against Exeter the previous weekend. I didn’t expect a repeat, but it did make you wonder what the team had left in the tank. But they had a full strength team out, so there were no excuses.
The game was entertaining, but Quins lost out to the power of Montpellier up front, and that determined the game. It was only towards the end of the game that they started to break through and narrow the margin. As we reached 80 minutes the score was 27-20 to Montpellier, but Quins had regained possession. Now was the time to edge their way up the pitch, taking it into contact, recycling, making sure there were no knock ons. Memories of the game against Stade Francais in the Heineken Cup in 2008. In that one we scored after 28 phases, with Nick Evans getting a drop goal to win the game 19-17.
Could it happen again? Ben Botica, on for Nev, received the ball in space. Time to run forward, gain few yards. He kicked it. Away. Kicked the game away. Inexplicable. On a par with his moment of madness against Northampton earlier in the season, when, receiving the ball behind his own try line, all he had to do was kick the ball out, but he kicked upfield, Saints kept it in and scored a try to win the game by 1 point.
What brings on these moments of misjudgement? There is pressure for sure, but Botica is a professional fly half, trained to expect pressure, contact, most times he gets the ball. Simply no excuse. But unfortunately, the conspiracy theorists have an explanation. Ben is joining Montpellier next season…
I can’t believe that could have been a factor. But his team mates certainly were disgusted. Our chances of playing in the European Championship next season kicked away. Of course, we didn’t deserve to win, and we fell away badly in the Premiership, from the moment we lost so many players to the Six Nations. But there was that last chance – and Ben Botica kicked it away.
Ben started so promisingly a few years ago. I even blogged about him being the new hope, here. But he never quite fulfilled the early promise. He generally kicks the points efficiently, but his decision-making isn’t top notch – and you get those aberrations. I hope he does well at Montpellier, but it is ruthless in France. He will have to sharpen up.
Lyon is a grand and beautiful city, with two magnificent rivers, the Rhone and Saone, flowing through it and joining to form one. We had a good walk along the Rhone on Saturday, before turning in to Vieux Lyon and making our way up the hill at Fourviere, to Notre Dame, where the view over Lyon was awesome. Lyon was also an important Roman centre, and the amphitheatre is well-preserved.
We walked down into the old town and stopped at a cafe restaurant for a leisurely lunch. A three course menu, great value at 24 Euros, washed down with a couple of carafes of local red wine. I often judge a French restaurant by the quality of its creme brûlée. This one, subtly infused with pistachio, was right up there. The Onglet steak was top quality too, with delicious pommes gratin dauphinois. It’s great when you just stumble upon a place and enjoy it so much.
It’s fair to say we both felt a bit sleepy on the tram out to the stadium. The first half of the game didn’t help much either. Something of a forward and midfield battle, with the ball rarely going wide. The four wingers didn’t get a look in.
The second half stretched a little, and Saracens dominated, winning 21-9. Disappointingly, Kiwi Dan Carter limped off after a few minutes of the second half, so we didn’t get to see any of his magic. But the atmosphere was terrific, enlivened by Racing, with their bands and sky blue and white flags. No wonder Jon, a Man City fan in football, was rooting for them!
So well done to Sarries. First English team to win the Championship (previously the Heineken Cup) since 2007. Not pretty, but ruthlessly efficient. A bit like Chelsea under Mourinho, this season excepted. To be admired, but not loved. A few years ago their reputation was of a team of dour South Africans; but that has changed, and they (with Quins) provide the core of the rising England team – with the awesome second rower, Maro Itoje, to the fore. He was man of the match on Saturday – and the semi and quarter finals too.
Still don’t like them though!
We finished the evening off back in the centre, with a good French craft beer at a bar called Ninkasi, and what you could call Lyonnais tapas (ie, rather elaborate and delicious) accompanied by a tasty bottle of Pouilly Fume at a restaurant in the area between the two rivers, 5-10 minutes walk to the north of the Place Bellecour, where hundreds gather to play pétanque during the day. The area we ended up in was pretty lively – clearly one of the places to visit at night. I think the street may have been Rue Merciere, just off the Place des Jacobins. Border of 1st and 2nd arrondissements.
So, Lyon, the City, got a huge thumbs up from Jon and me. And the stadium was superb too. The rugby was a mixture of disappointment (Quins) and grim efficiency (Saracens). But both times the atmosphere was to be savoured. A great experience.
Lyon, nous retournerons!
PS. A word of warning to fans going to a game in Lyon at the Euro-football. Plan your journey back carefully. The new tram station next to the ground cannot cope with the number of passengers. On Friday, when the stadium was only half full, there were thousands queuing for the three-carriage trams. Jon and I took one look and decided to walk down the road and hope something might turn up. We got lucky when a taxi came by. On Saturday, when Sarries had it wrapped up, we snuck out a couple of minutes before the end, and dashed about 15 minutes up the road to a station on the main T3 line, called Decines Grand Large. It was already busy, but we got on the first tram to come along. An alternative may be to walk to the terminus at Meyzieu, which is probably about 20 minutes away. It may be that the authorities sort it out before the Euros – these rugby matches may have been a trial run – but if they don’t, it could be mayhem. And football fans, after a few beers, may be less tolerant than the rugby variety.