In the region of France where we’re currently staying, many people speak four languages: French, Catalan, Spanish (Castilian or castellano), and English. But there is a sporting language that everyone speaks here and it’s not football (soccer) – it’s rugby (Union, not League).
France loves ‘the beautiful game’ as football (soccer) is so often called, but rugby is also a very popular sport, and locals told us that after gossiping at the Saturday morning markets and dancing the Sardana in the sunshine, a weekend afternoon at a match was one of the most popular things for locals to do in Céret.
While the match we witnessed here in no way matched the beauty of the game with the round ball, it was skilful, but it was also brutal.
Locals told us that here in the Languedoc-Roussillon region (14% of which was once the five historical Catalan pays of Roussillon, Vallespir, Conflent, Capcir, and Cerdagne), and especially in the Pyrénées-Orientales area where we’re staying in, that they play rugby to differentiate themselves from the rest of France.
Some of the top players for the national French rugby team have come from this region, mainly playing for the Union Sportive des Arlequins Perpignanais (or USAP), whose home is in nearby Perpignan. The Perpignan team plays in the ‘Top 14’, the premier league of French rugby, and won the title in 2009.
The local team of Céret, Céret Sportif, plays in the 2nd division, the amateur division called Fédérale 2. These guys are the weekend warriors, who play for the sheer love of the game and the odd fistfight.
When we arrived at the oval to watch our game of rugby in Céret on a fine, crisp, late winter’s afternoon, after a long lunch in the local square, the crowd was fired up and the match was being played hard and fast.
Céret Sportif’s opponents on this sunny Sunday were Stade Rodez Aveyron, or just Rodez, as they’re known.
Lara, who grew up watching rugby league in Sydney, was confused by the game and why the players were stomping over and leaping onto each other.
I explained to here that in rugby, the forwards are meant to show courage and resilience, and the backs skill with the ball and grace under pressure, by making the right choice whether to attack or kick the ball to gain territory. But it was hard to ignore the sheer brutality of the forward play during the rucks and mauls of the game.
I explained that the maul is when a player is tacked but doesn’t hit the ground and the teams’ forwards group together to try and win territory. A ruck forms when a player goes to ground when tackled and the players ‘ruck’ the ball back with their feet.
Following one violent episode after a maul, players from each side were sent off. The referee was being conservative, probably realising that sending off more players might have ended up making his exit from the ground after the game a little difficult.
On the sidelines even the officials from the opposing clubs were niggling each other, at one stage having to be pulled apart. A player from Rodez went down hard and for a moment it looked like he was in serious trouble. Every time he tried to get to his feet, he wobbled and went back down again.
No one wants the dishonour of being stretchered off, but after five minutes of wobbling and falling back to earth he had to succumb. The supporters of both sides clapped, making it an exit worthy of a fallen hero. Each following session of play saw a player needing assistance after either being stomped on or punched.
With ten minutes to go and one point in the lead, the visitors attacked, the winger for Rodez basically walking over his smaller opposite number but losing balance before he could reach the line to score. A penalty was called and the two players taunted each other about the last play. “You couldn’t get past me!” said the Céret player. “I tripped,” was the immediate response from the Rodez player.
With the score line at 29–28 to the visitors, a Rodez player kicked a field goal but amazingly it was disallowed. The Rodez website later proclaimed that the referee was the only one at the ground who didn’t see the ball go over.
If the kick had have been awarded, it would have effectively ended the match. A reserve Rodez player who was behind the goalposts as the ball sailed over his head spent a good five minutes gesticulating and miming the ball going over and waving his arms around. It was good theatre, but to no avail.
With only a couple of minutes to go and tensions rising, the local team kicked a goal and it was 31–29 to the local side. An ambulance arrived to pick up the injured Rodez player but the Céret fans didn’t appear too keen to let the ambulance through.
The final whistle blew but the bad blood continued. Some of the Rodez players refused to shake hands with their opponents while the Céret supporters taunted the Rodez players from the sidelines and the stand.
In the middle of the pitch the traditional shaking hands of the team officials turned into a shoving match with officials having to be pulled apart to prevent it escalating into a brawl.
As we left the ground somewhat shell-shocked at how rough the game was, Lara turned to me and said, “now that we’ve been to a boxing match, I’d love to go see some football.”
Perhaps this game of rugby in Céret wasn’t the most elegant introduction to the game she could have had, but it was certainly an entertaining afternoon with the locals.