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Peter Bills: Nobody does passion quite like French

Gareth Edwards still recalls vividly the first time he truly understood the meaning of French rugby hospitality. Mind you, after the night he had, it wasn't the sort of occasion you'd forget in a hurry.

Years ago, Edwards and some chums had been invited to a French club; perhaps to open a pavilion, bless the team, celebrate a centenary. Who knows? Few could remember within an hour or two of actually getting there.

The trouble was, actually getting there. They got to Heathrow in time, but bad weather had delayed the flight to France. "Better get some food while we're waiting," said one of the party.

So they climbed into some meat and chips at the airport and didn't take off until around 8.0pm. With the hour's time difference over in France, they reckoned they wouldn't arrive at the function until near midnight.

certainly

So, by that time, it would probably be all over. There certainly wouldn't be any food left. Of course there wouldn't...

They were right about one thing: their timing. They landed at around 10.45, in bad weather, and although club officials were still waiting at the provincial airport to pick them up, by the time they'd collected the bags and driven to the function, they weren't able to reach the club until shortly before midnight.

"But no one will be there," protested Gareth.

They opened the door to the clubhouse shortly before midnight and a roar went up. The place was packed and not a knife or fork had been used on the long tables set out for dinner. The locals had waited for their esteemed guests from Wales.

Mind you, they hadn't been entirely inactive. Vast dumps full of empty red wine bottles were stacked beside the bar, and a room full of red, rosy faces cheerily greeted them.

Edwards and his friends climbed in, like the well-mannered boys they are. "Of course we haven't had dinner; we're absolutely starving," they said in unison with broad smiles.

Alas, the smiles started to melt once they glimpsed the vast plates of food that were brought in. Great chunks of steak, lamb and pork were served, with enough chips to keep the casino at Monte Carlo going for months.

The red wine came in torrents and, well, to cut a lovely story short, they somehow staggered out of the place close to 5.0am.

That was the game for you in those days. But they're all gone, those days; long gone. Aren't they? Well, I'm not so sure. On a warm June night in Toulouse last summer, loitering with intent outside a busy bar/restaurant with drink in hand, I spied a familiar face in the throng.

He was a formidable prop forward for Stade Toulouse and a few other renowned French clubs in his time, and we'd been old mates. The last thing I remember is tapping him on the shoulder and seeing this great bear of a man turn around. After that, it went dark as I disappeared into his massive chest and neck.

In time, I was allowed out and then given a bear hug that all but crushed the breath from me. Drinks were ordered, smiles permanent. And long, long afterwards, we made our way off into the night, a fine friendship restored and suitably celebrated.

It is the story of French rugby. As Felipe Contepomi, Leinster's one-time champion Argentinian who is now with Toulon, says of the French game: "There is nothing quite like it. It is because of the history, the ambience and the fact that whole towns get behind their teams. The way French people support their teams is unbelievable."

Munster will be reminded of all this the moment they reach Toulon this weekend. The welcome on the field will be ferocious and off it, equally animated.

Whether Munster will cope with all that passion and commitment will hold the key to their Heineken Cup hopes for this season. But whatever the outcome, they'll certainly know by the time they leave just what French hospitality is all about.

Irish Independent