Vive la France! A rugby tour for the ages.

On a cold winter Wednesday December 8th, 2021, former Milwaukee Barbarians Rugby Club (Barbos) president Ben Nirschl announced at the club’s biannual AGM that there was an opportunity for players to take part in a trip to World Rugby’s 2023 World Cup tournament held in France. A dozen hands went up (including my own) when Ben asked for the interest level, and so the wheels were set in motion.

A goal of mine after watching the tournament’s 2011 final between France and New Zealand was to attend a world cup. And so, at the end of the meeting when Ben asked for a player or players to take point on organizing the tour, I put my hand up immediately.

Since Ben had already lined up a touring company (more on them later), my job was simply to drum up interest and fill seats on the tour. This was easy since the trip was to France and the tour kit designed — and made by Booshie Athletic — sold themselves. 

All told there were 30 of us that departed on Thursday September 21st, 28 of us from O’Hare, and 2 of us from Milwaukee. The layover as is usual were stressful, but the gang managed to get through them without too much incident, arriving safely at their final destination on the 22nd

GoPlay Sports

Our tour organizer was GoPlay Sports Tours and they turned out to be the best non-rugby thing about the trip. For example, our tour director; Darren Lyons, was friendly, informative, and responsive despite being 8 time-zones away from us in Milwaukee.

Similarly, our tour guide Thomas Randall was extremely helpful and knowledgeable from navigating subway systems, to organizing a group of tipsy rugby players for the World Cup matches that we went to. He had never had a connection to rugby before our tour, and I’d like to think that our fervor for the game has indoctrinated yet another fan of this beautiful game. 

Welcome to Paris

We met up with Thomas from GoPlay upon our arrival in Paris and went to work. It was later estimated by some mathematicians on the tour, that in total, the group drank about 15 gallons of beer on the trip (conservatively), and we made a fairly big dent in that figure the first night watching the Argentina vs. Samoa game at Paris’ fan zone.

The fan zones at the World Cup are public squares that dedicated to the tournament. Many fans that didn’t have tickets who were interested in watching games would watch there. There were clothing merchants, family-fun games, and beer vendors.

The Paris fan zone was the first opportunity our player tour was able to cross paths with some of the culprits from our old boys tour, who had already been in Paris a little longer than us already.

GoPlay organized a scrimmage game against the British Rugby Club – Paris for the team while we were there, which was played on the second day in Paris. Sadly, due to jet lag from the previous day (and potentially hangover from the previous night), the lads came up short against the Parisian competition, but the aftermatch social that followed was well worth the bruises. 

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On the third day in Paris, the team got a really special opportunity to tour the Stade De France. Boasting the most seats out of any stadium in France, the French National Team’s home field was quite impressive. The team was able to look at the locker rooms, and even walk onto the pitch during the tour of the stadium. The lads followed up the stadium tour with a hearty Paris dinner, and more rugby watching at the fan zone and local bars.

France Tour 2023 Stadium Tour
Stade De France

The fourth day in Paris was the tour’s last full day in France’s capital, so the group made the most of it by going shopping and sightseeing all across the city. The day was capped off with a river boat tour of the Seine; going past a slew of French cultural landmarks including the Notre Dame, the Louvre, and of course: the Eifel tower. That night the team enjoyed another Parisian meal aboard a boat restaurant, and got to see the Eifel tower light up after the sun went down.

France Tour 2023 Paris Eiffel Tower
Eifel Tower

Heading south

The fifth day saw us take a train across the French countryside to Lyon; considered by many to be the capital of French gastronomy, and the home to yet another massive stadium that played host to Rugby World Cup matches. 

Since we’d properly acclimated to the European time zone that we found ourselves in, after lunch we had no problem finding all sorts of activities to do. After a couple of hours, the team reconvened at our hotel, put on our kit, and headed to train with a local club that GoPlay had found for us: Les Rebelyons Rugby Club.

The Rebelyons were excellent hosts, giving us the opportunity to train and scrimmage with their team, and then serving us a fantastic dinner of pizza and beer. Our old boys also made it out to watch training, drink beer, and heckle us from the sidelines. 

Around 5 o’clock the following day we all headed back to the hotel from our various outings around town, ate a quick dinner, and set out on the long cross-city trek to Olympique Lyonnais’ home field: Groupama Stadium (OL Stadium for short). The public transit was very simple to navigate (thanks yet again to Thomas Randall), but packed to the gills with boisterous rugby fans from all over the world. I spotted Japan jerseys, Scottish kilts, faces painted with the Georgian flag, and people of every color and creed descending on Groupama to watch Namibia vs. Uruguay. 

We arrived about an hour early, and had the opportunity to once again cross paths with the old boy tour. We enjoyed some laughs, sipped some beers, and headed into the stadium.

The atmosphere was electric. My Jess wife and I had fantastic seats behind the south try zone, about five rows up from the front of the second tier. The match itself was blisteringly competitive, with Namibia fighting for their first ever Rugby World Cup Win, and Uruguay holding out hope that with a bonus point win and a lot of luck to still make the knockout stages. 

Namibia led 20-12 at half time, and Jess and I were excitedly discussing the possibility of Allister Coetzee’s first ever Rugby World Cup victory.

Unfortunately, it was not Namibia’s night. Coetzee’s side saw two consecutive yellows that spanned from minute 48 through 71, as well as a yellow that was upgraded to a red at minute 63. The ending score was 36-26, but I felt that the scoreline didn’t reflect the effort that an eager Namibian side that had led for the first three quarters of the match.

Exploring Lyon

Day seven saw no team activities planned by GoPlay, so Jess and I joined another pair of couples and toured Lyon’s historic old town. We had lunch in the shadow of the city’s Cathedral, and took the tram up the mountain in the center of the city to see the Basilica and the Old Roman amphitheater.  

France Tour 2023 Bike Ride

Day eight held the most highly anticipated event of the tour: the opportunity to watch New Zealand’s national team – The All Blacks – play against another tier one nation; Italy. Our first activity however was a guided tour of Lyon’s waterways via kayak in the morning. This proved challenging for some as the effects of having too much fun caught up with us; some of us were unable to fully appreciate the beauty of Lyon’s architecture from the water. 

After a brisk paddle and a wonderful meal at a hotel restaurant, the team made the trek back to OL Stadium for the main course. 

As soon as you stepped off the final tram to the stadium, you could feel the electricity in the air. There was a sense of group excitement and anticipation for the match that was absent two nights earlier. Yet again, we met up with the old boys on tour in the shadow of OL stadium and enjoyed a couple of beers. This time though, thanks to a forward-thinking former president who’s already been named, we took a group photo with the Barbos team flag, and their parent club’s flag – the Harlequins. 

We all made our way into the stadium, with Jess and I sitting next to another pair of our tour group in the final row of the arena. We sat down as both teams completed their pre-game warmups and headed inside the locker rooms to finish their preparations for the game. There were no illusions as to who would be the victors for the night’s match – New Zealand were the betting favorites by about a country mile, but no one expected the outcome that we got.

Both teams came out of the sheds to sing their national anthems, and then the All Blacks shaped up to do the traditional dance that they perform before every match to honor the cultural heritage of New Zealand – The Haka. As they started the stadium went silent. Despite 60,000 people from all over the world, you could hear Aaron Smith’s voice carry all the way back to where Jess and I sat as he performed the war chant. 

After the final syllable of the chant, the stadium went completely nuts. Almost 60,000 people on their feet cheering, some jumping up and down swinging scarfs and flags from their respective countries. I’ll never forget that moment.

New Zealand was coming into this match struggling to put together a dominant performance. They’d been absolutely demolished by hosts France in the opening match of the tournament on a hot Parisian Friday night, and had only beaten Namibia to this point in the tournament. Italy had two wins on the bounce, and had performed admirably in their warm-up matches, even beating tournament darling Japan a month prior to this match. 

The next 80 minutes however, New Zealand did everything but struggle. The whole game seemed like a highlight reel for their backs, as the same Aaron Smith that led the team in the Haka put up a hat trick within the first half. The All Blacks completely decimated Italy’s defense, essentially running at whatever channel they wanted, and finding success. 

Italy managed to string together some good phases late in the second half, and took advantage of some mistakes made by the New Zealand replacement forwards to put up two scores, but it was much too little, and far too late for the Azzurri.   

All good things…

The next day was departure day. Jess and I had traveled separate, and so left hours before most of the team was awake after the final night of festivities. We broke bread (and croissants) in the hotel lobby before leaving for the airport. 

As we sat in the cab, with French sights going by in the window, I realized that this was the first overseas tour that the Milwaukee Barbarians had taken since the club’s inception in 2013.

To be a part of it was incredibly special, and after talking to some of the other club members who attended, I think we’ll be ready to take on Australia for the next World Cup in 2027.

Tom Fossell
Tom Fossell
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