A flying visit to Toulon

Another season is now well underway, and still I look to keep my passion for both Chesham United and Saracens burning bright. Last season’s FA Cup run will live long in the memory with Chesham United, but the trip to Lyon with Saracens reached new sporting peaks, making the decision to purchase a season ticket for a third year all a bit of a no-brainer.

In theory it should work out fairly even. My Sarries’ season ticket covers sixteen games, the other weekends between 6th August and end of April can be spent watching footy, with May handed over to the big games at the end of the rugby season…it should work perfectly, it did last year. But that was before I started dabbling in the odd Saracens away game!

Just like football, the away days are something different, a little bit special; so there was always a chance that I would look to slip a couple more Sarries away trips into the season. But it does become addictive, bloody addictive.

I blame modern day social media. One minute I am using Twitter and Facebook to keep up to date with news and scores, then I stumble upon a new group called Sarries on Tour, they tempted me onto the “fun bus” to Worcester last year and before I had even received delivery of my new season ticket for this current season I had purchased tickets for Harlequins away, committed to Bath and talked Mrs Calder into a bit of a family trip to Toulon in the Champions Cup.

Realising that it was all getting a bit out of hand, I resisted the temptation to buy tickets to Bristol away on the basis that I had already committed to too many games. Then one night over a glass of wine, Mrs C points out that my son Ben finishes school at 1.30pm on the Friday that Saracens play Bristol, and it was a game we had fancied, and they might not be in the league next season and …oh, sod it, let’s book tickets for that one as well!

As a result, the balance between footy and rugby at weekends is leaning rather heavily to what in my football fanzine days would be referred to as ‘egg-chasing’. It all started with good intentions to share the sporting love. After the opening Double Header at Twickenham I didn’t give traveling away to Exeter the following weekend a second thought…but then as we approach the end of October, that remains the only game Ben and I have missed this season!

Well, having been to Harlequins and Bristol, how could we possibly not go to the South of France for the monstrous opening defence of the Champions Cup against Toulon? In fairness to the state of my marriage, Mrs C planned to join us on this one.  Again it involved an evening with a bottle of wine (always the best way to make plans!). I dangled the idea of Ben and I attending the game in front of Mrs C two glasses in to the night, and, to be honest, was surprised by the positive vibes I picked up.  So we hit Google Maps and located the ground. Close to the marina, close to the Mediterranean Sea. “Wow – I want to come to that one!” she declares.

And there we were, on our way to France for another rugby match. This whole idea of only attending home games had gone out the window, as had the idea of maybe just slipping in the odd close (ish) away game…Small fry to many I know, but this was our third trip across the channel and we went fully realising that we could not be so lucky on our third visit having previously attended the Champions Cup final last season and been at Racing Metro in Paris a couple of years ago when Marcelo Bosch upset the locals by winning it for Sarries with a huge last kick of the match – Surely we can’t be so lucky on a third trip?

As we sat going nowhere on the M25 on the Friday night, it didn’t have the making of a classic away day. To minimise disruption to Ben’s schooling we had planned a tighter schedule than I would normally like, flying out to Marseille on the day of the match and then getting a train along to Toulon – I tried not to think of all that could go wrong with the journey to make us miss kick-off – which meant that the Friday night M25 traffic had no bearings on the schedule, as long as we reached our hotel before morning, we would be fine.

As it happened, the whole Gatwick hotel thing worked brilliantly. After we eventually cut across country via Redhill we arrived at the valet parking at Gatwick South terminal, checked the car in and walked a few yards across the way into the main terminal where we followed the signs to the BLOC Hotel. I had never heard of it before. The website made it sound really close, but this was ridiculous, we were more or less at security by the time we found the little door that led to the airport hotel where we were to spend the night.

Three of us checked into the room that was cosy, but extremely modern, designed around the Japanese pod idea. Everything was controlled by a Touchpad on the wall – lights, air-conditioning, closing the blinds and even setting the alarm call in the morning. The bathroom was a bit bizarre, more a modern wet room behind only semi-opaque glass windows in the middle of the room…but for an overnight with an early start, it was perfect.

Dinner choices were limited to the terminal facilities prior to security, but that worked fine. A couple of pints and a meal at Wetherspoons enabled us to put the working week behind us, and start to look forward to the weekend ahead. My 12 year old son Ben and I chatted about the team, obviously delighted at the return of Owen Farrell, but also only too aware of the fact that Toulon was a team packed full of superstars and unbeaten at home in this European competition. As a parent, I felt it appropriate to manage my child’s expectations and advise him that he cannot expect it to be a momentous occasion like the Paris or Lyon trips, but to enjoy the occasion for what it was. Ha.

Through the Sarries on Tour Facebook group I had learned of some of the woes fellow fans had experienced on their journeys – Adverse weather leading to flight diversions being the biggest worry, we just didn’t have much wiggle room in our travel plans at all; and as for the weather, I had envisaged shirt sleeves, sunshine and blue sea; not gales and pouring rain! Please, for this one trip, let the travel arrangements run smoothly.

We awoke to find that our EasyJet flight was still on time for an 8.00am departure. Excellent. And we fully utilised the benefit of our hotel booking with a “beat the queues” fast track through security leaving enough time for a Nando’s (yes really!) breakfast before boarding the plane and having the unheard of experience for a Calder’s flight of the Captain announcing that we “should be away 2/3 minutes early.” Well thank you…what a result.

Within five minutes that had changed, “Just to let you know that we are in a queue, there are about six planes in front of us, but we should be away in about ten minutes.” Those ten minutes became 30 minutes, but we were soon jetting down the runway and flying through the air on our way to the southern French coast.

In fairness the flight was everything you could ask for from EasyJet, though that did not stop Ben giving his Mum that look that said “If you hadn’t come, we could have flown British Airways for the same price.” A bit harsh on his Mum, especially as the trip was doubling up as our Wedding Anniversary meal out, postponed from September as we were doing the Dryathlon. As it was we had not bought her a ticket for the game (rugby is father/son time!) and were instead banking on Mrs C spending the game time to find a suitable restaurant to spend the evening celebrating our anniversary…and any other sporting achievements that might be worthy of celebration that evening!

So we landed in Marseille about five hours before kick-off. Exiting the airport we followed the signs for the bus to the main Marseille train station where we would board the train to Toulon. Typically we missed the first bus by seconds, but 15 minutes later we were making the 25 minute journey into Marseille (The airport in Marseille is about as close as Luton is to central London!) where we were able to catch the 12.31pm train from platform 3, arriving in Toulon 57 minutes later. With the hotel and ground about a mile walk away, all was falling into place.

The rain and winds of the previous days had passed by the time we exited Toulon train station and dragged our bags along the streets to our hotel literally yards from the ground. In fact it was really quite hot, and after an early start, we just wanted to find the hotel, dump the bags and find somewhere for a pre-match drink. I won’t lie; you could sense a bit of tension in the air between the three of us as we jumped from Maps on my Iphone to a printed map, seeking the shortest, most accurate route to the hotel.

A mile later we arrived, dumped the bags, used the facilities and all three of us headed down the main road towards the sea/stadium. The journey had gone really well, but we were tired and the preceding week at work was still playing on the mind. It felt good, but it didn’t really have the making of being anything special…

…Construction work forced us to cross the road as we headed towards the sea. The traffic lights changed to green to cross, the car engines quietened, and in the distance we heard music. Dum-der-dum, dum, dum, dum, dum…Dum-der-dum, dum, dum, dum, dum…”Listen Dad” says Ben “it’s that The White Stripes song”.

“What a coincidence” I replied “that’s the tune to which Saracens fans sing…”

Then came the unmistakeable voices of partying English voices: “O Maro Itoje…O Maro Itoje”

For the first time, a little smile came across our faces. We had made it. Plane, train and automobile. We arrived at the roundabout just outside the ground to see Saracens and Toulon fans singing along to a live band that had been set up to entertain at the Toulon supporters bar. Our first instinct was that we might find a quiet bar around the corner and just listen, but our mind soon changed as my arm got grabbed for a (very) brief dance as I crossed the area in front of the stage…Best hit the bar I think!

The atmosphere was indescribable. The sun was shining, a huge rugby match was about to happen, yet opposing supporters mingled and celebrated as though they were long lost buddies. Even better, the drink prices were fantastic!

A couple of glasses of wine in and I think Mrs C was wishing that she was coming to the game, but she still had an important job to fulfil (finding our evening meal venue).

At the bar I bumped into fellow supporters that had been on the fun bus to Worcester the previous season and fans seen at other away games. It genuinely felt like we were drinking with the rugby family, the Sarries family. Smiles beamed from our faces. One more drink before we go to the stadium became 2,3 or maybe even 4 as we soaked up the atmosphere prior to the main event just over the road.

Eventually we (Ben) dragged ourselves away from the party to enter the stadium for the main event. By now the sky was clear blue, from our seats we could see the big ships in the seas, seated behind us – rather amazingly – was someone I had known from antenatal classes for my first son, now 15 years old (small world?). It felt idyllic. A few beers. Bright sunshine. This was how I had envisaged Toulon having seen the television pictures in my relatively short rugby-supporting career. Could things get any better?

Well, there was the small matter of the game. And what a game. What a bloody game!

I won’t go into detail here because the papers have been full of it, but it is fair to say that the first-half was something quite unbelievable. A sensational performance saw Sarries build what looked like a comfortable lead, only for Toulon to come out all powerful in the second-half and slowly claw back the points to set up a dramatic finale.

A late Farrell penalty put Sarries an unassailable 8 points ahead with seconds to go…Time to breathe easy and relax? Well you would think so wouldn’t you!

Now this will sound really stupid to your casual reader, but, being totally honest, at this point in my head we were only seven points ahead (in other word, a converted try and it would end a draw). Basic maths I know, and we could (should) have worked it out, but in the circumstances (the excitement, the beers and the sun glaring on the scoreboard making it completely unreadable) I was convinced the lead was only 7 points as Toulon applied the pressure on our defensive lines. We were down to 14 men, they were in the ascendancy…it was tense. Dare I say, more tense than a campsite!

It wasn’t just me, even the guy next to me was muttering under his breath “This is going to end a draw…I know it is, we’re going to blow it, it is going to be a draw…” Unaware that we need not have worried, the final whistle brought about wild scenes of celebration. What a result. What an achievement. What a day!

Having applauded the players off the pitch and hugged random strangers, we made our way back across the roundabout where Mrs C was waiting having located a suitable restaurant for the evening, and equally as important, a bar for another pre-dinner drink on the waters edge. Ben and I spoke enthusiastically about the game as other Sarries fans passed by the bar with equally huge smiles.

In all the excitement I had almost forgotten about the small matter of my beloved Chesham United playing for a place in the First Round Proper of the FA Cup for a second successive year…They had won 1-0. Fantastic – A double celebration…sorry, treble celebration, we were also belatedly celebrating our wedding anniversary!!

The meal by the marina was perfect – A fitting end to what had been a quite remarkable day, it was almost impossible to believe that we had woken up that morning in some strange pod-style room at Gatwick Airport.

The following morning we breakfasted in Toulon town centre before getting a train back to Marseille where we spent most of the day, including a boat trip along the coast in some rather choppy seas. We were back at Marseille airport early and to be honest there is not a lot to do in the Marseille departure lounge. But the flight left on time, 10.00pm local time, and we landed in the UK 90 minutes. The car was waiting for us a short walk from Customs and we were back home in bed in Hemel Hempstead by 12.30am – Certainly can’t complain, but definitely feeling a little jaded for work and school the following morning!

A hectic weekend, would we do it again? You bet…Just need to time it right, and ply Mrs C with enough red wine to get the go ahead! Roll on Bath in a few weeks time, no anniversary to celebrate, but it is a couple of days after my birthday, so that should be excuse enough for another weekender!

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