Barbarians tour South of France for authentic rugby experience

Written by Nick Vigder

Vincent Esteve and Florian Aubry relocated to the Milwaukee area in 2016 to work for ECM USA in Pleasant Prairie, WI. They came here not knowing anyone but with their experience and love of rugby, they reached out to the local community. Thus, they quickly became Barbarians and were welcomed with open arms into our club.

Earlier this year Vincent mentioned casually: “I have a villa in the south of France all to myself, and you guys are welcome to come whenever you want.” This off-hand comment on a rowdy Memorial Day weekend was brushed off and soon forgotten by (nearly) everyone.

Without warning, back row Anthony Sims announced that he had booked a flight to France and shared his itinerary: the trip would be August 11th to August 20th with flights through Barcelona, Spain. Shortly thereafter, a small group of us booked our flights: Ben Bastian (2nd Row), Darrin Shafer (Back 3), and myself (Nick Vigder, Stud Halfback).

Arriving in Spain

When we arrived on August 12, we were met at the airport by Vincent who had driven 2 hours from his house in Banyuls-Sur-Mer, France to pick us up. We then took a taxi to downtown Barcelona to meet Vincent’s friends Sebastian (Seb, Toulon fan, 2nd Row) and Ana (Toulouse superfan).

Over the next 3 days we toured our way through Spain and the South of France visiting towns along the coast of the Mediterranean, eating paella, and enjoying vacation.

french shirts
Front row from L to R: Nick Vigder, Darrin Shafer, Vincent Esteve. Back row from L to R: Anthony Sims, Seb Mannono, Ben Bastian.

First rugby stop - Toulouse

Our first exposure to the rugby culture in the region came on Day 4 while in Toulouse, France. Toulouse is home to one of the bigger Top 14 clubs, Stade Toulousain. Some very recognizable internationals currently play for them like Luke McCallister (New Zealand), Toby Flood (England), Thierry Dusatoir (France), and Semi Kunitani (Fiji).

We visited the Stade Municipal in Toulouse, one of the home grounds of the club and a site of the 2007 rugby World Cup. Pretty cool to say the least.

The Rugby Store

On Day 5, on our way back from Toulouse to Banyuls-Sur-Mer, we made a stop for refreshments so Ben could get his beer snob on. But very close by I spotted a sign that said “Rugby Store” and inside it was wall-to-wall rugby.

Boots, T-shirts, jerseys, shorts, scrum caps: you name it, this store had it. It was truly incredible to see that something like this existed on planet earth!

After each of us spent a ton of money on Toulouse gear, we headed back to Banyuls.

the rugby store
The Rugby Store, outside of Toulouse.

Professional rugby in Perpignan

On Day 6, we were set to take in a professional rugby fixture in Perpignan, France (about a 30 minute drive from Banyuls). Union Sportive des Arlequins Perpignanais (USAP) is a storied club in French rugby that has been around since 1902. On this night they were taking on Carcassonne in an exhibition preseason match at Stade Aime Giral.

Upon arrival, all you could see was Yellow and Red — colors of Perpignan and the Catalan flag. These people were rugby crazy and you could tell. We were in awe. The stadium, the atmosphere, the pitch, the goal posts, 10,000 spectators: everything about it was all about rugby.

As the teams came onto the field, we could sense the respect that the audience has for the game itself. While there were loud cheers when the home team scored, the crowd also applauded when the away team put points on the board because they understood and respected how valuable and hard-earned each point is in this sport.

We had never experienced this type of atmosphere in America and it was truly a refreshing experience.

At the end of the game, USAP came away with a much deserved victory. They were clinical on attack, kept the ball alive in contact and recycled quickly: it was a great display of quality rugby.

Hanging with Catalan Dragons fans

At the beginning of day 7 we drove to Canet-En-Roussillon to eat dinner at a place called Restaurant La Pizzathèque. This restaurant was of particular importance to us because it is owned by Vincent’s cousin who coincidentally is a starter for the Catalan Dragons (the rugby League team in Perpignan).

On this night, the Dragons they were playing away at Hull FC in the UK but we had front row seats to the broadcast on local TV. Although Hull won the match it was still entertaining to watch the match and cheer on the Dragons with their local supporters.

Training with ECV Rugby Club

On our last full day in France we had arranged a training session with the first club Vincent ever played for: Entente Cote Vermeille (ECV) Rugby Club. This men’s club is made up of club players from the coastal cities of Banyuls-Ser-Mer, Port Vendres, and Collioure in France. They compete in Federale 3, which is the 5th division of competitive rugby in France. Vincent told us this would be the French equivalent to Division 1 men’s club in America.

Unlike most club rugby venues in America, the temporary training pitch in Théza, France had soft ground, thick grass, and a full clubhouse with 2 locker rooms and showers. Despite the exquisite facilities, training started much like it does in the USA with a bit of touch rugby. However, not one of the local players could speak English. This made for a lot of confusion as we tried to communicate our position and attack lines in our broken french.

After touch we got right to it with lines of four players passing the ball down the line. We also practiced two set plays: Un Mexican, and Deux Mexican. For ECV, “Mexican” is code for “dummy runner”. The ball carrier had to choose which of the two dummy plays to run. So you can imagine the hysterics at 4 Americans shouting “Deux Mexican” in front of 30+ French guys. :)

Next we split into 2 groups. One group practiced a rucking drill with a stern-looking coach who stalked around the pitch barefoot and obviously played in the forward pack before retiring. This reminded us quite clearly of our past coach Mike Loader for obvious reasons.

The Americans with ECV Rugby Club after training.

Our group was focused on conditioning with the head coach. After 7 days of vacation none of us were well prepared for an aerobic workout but we managed though all the while not understanding a word coming out of anyone’s mouth.

Training ended with an open-field drill where there were waves of 6-7 defenders in a specified zone throughout the length of the field. This was fun because it somewhat simulated open play that we’ve done Barbarians training in Milwaukee.

The open-field drill was our opportunity to show ECV what we were made of. We wore our Milwaukee Barbarians kit proudly, held our own, and perhaps earned a little respect from the locals.

In true rugby spirit, after training we joined the coaches and some players at a local pub for some pints of beer. Vincent’s former teammates and coaches expressed how much fun they had hosting us and asked a lot of questions about rugby in the USA. They also extended an invitation for any Barbarian to train with them and play for a year in southern France.

The training with ECV was definitely the highlight of the trip. It was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience for us all and it was unforgettable. It was the perfect ending to a perfect trip.

Looking back

It is incredible to think that we could travel halfway across the world and play the game we love without missing a beat despite not speaking the local language (besides telling the local girls they had beautiful eyes of course … “Tu es des beaux yeux”).

For us, the trip truly provides a new perspective to rugby. Just like when Vincent and Florian came to the Milwaukee rugby community, we have now experienced first-hand that you can go anywhere in the world and always have something in common with a specific group of people regardless of language, culture, or age. And that is what ignites our love for rugby.