Ahh, Paris in the springtime. The city of lights, the city of love, of fashion and food. The city of snooty waiters, of cafes where the atmosphere is a heady mixture of Gauloises and Chanel No 5.
It is at this time of year – when the sap is rising and hope springs as reliably as the daffodils in the Jardin du Luxembourg – that Irish rugby fans make their biannual pilgrimage to Paris.
Pilgrimage is right. There has always been something penitential about this journey. Perhaps even masochistic. We go there to be beaten.
My first experience of this ritual humiliation came in the early 1980s, when a rather generous grant from the European Parliament enabled a group of UCD students to take in the France-Ireland match as part of their “educational” trip.
Things were different back then. There was no Google Maps, no euro and no hope of winning “le match”. We hadn’t won on French soil since 1972. The O’Driscoll-inspired win of 2000 was still 16 years distant. We would win a Tour de France before we’d beat them at rugby in their own city.
Some other time-specific strangenesses from that trip remain in the memory: the first sight of a bidet, which some of the girls took to mean that our hotel was a house of ill repute and called their mothers at home in Foxrock to tell them so.
Back home, pub opening hours were strictly policed; over here, there was a place called the Guinness Tavern near the Rue St Denis that never seemed to close.
And there was the friendliness of the locals. Our French extended to saying “Fergus Slattery” and giving a thumbs up, followed by “Jean-Pierre Rives” and giving a thumbs down. The French loved it, but then it’s easy to be generous when you know you’re going to win.
The match was played at Parc des Princes – the move to Stade de France came in 1998 – a grey old hulk of a place haunted by the memories of French wingers skating down the touchline or big lock forwards from the south handing off Irish tacklers.
On the day of the game, we stopped by to watch the Irish Universities take on their French counterparts. The Irish turned it into a boxing match – which suited them better than rugby – but still lost. The highlight of the match came when our hooker chased their winger onto the race track that surrounded the pitch and cornered him in the long-jump pit. You don’t see that kind of speed from a front-five forward very often.
Back at Parc des Princes, Ireland lost 25-12. We came back two years later – the grant was bigger this time and we were able to take in Heidelberg on the way down to Paris – and lost 29-9. And the try was worth only four points back then.
In fact, we never won at that grey ground. The move to the new, and rather antiseptic, Stade de France seemed to break a spell. Thanks to O’Driscoll’s three tries in 2000, we won, but only just.
A trick of the memory makes it seem like we hammered the French that day, and the constant replaying of O’Driscoll touching down reinforces the impression. But the final score was 25-27. And the French were missing so many players that the Midi-Olympique headline asked: “Are there 15 left?”
But still, the impression is created. France? At Parc des Prince? Is O’Driscoll playing? Then, pas de problème, mon ami.
Tomorrow, as the thousands of Irish fans fill the streets around the Stade de France, they will have something that we never had when we came to Paris – on EU money – all those years ago.
We had hope. They have belief. This time, it’s not a wing and a prayer, a nod and a wink and a couple of Hail Marys. This time, it’s a centre and a team that knows how good it is.
I won’t make it myself. But after the match, after Ireland win, if my tab is still running at the Guinness Tavern, have one on me.