On the road with Irish exiles

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Football riots, the lighting of Olympic dreams, anti-globalisation protests and Paolo “Roman salute” Di Canio: welcome to another relaxed weekend in the life of a Europe-bound rugby supporter.

These are the days that we as fans most look forward to all season, the time when our teams head to the Continent and we can taste the unique sporting culture of another country.

A few weekends ago the London Irish cause took me to Agen in southern France, but last weekend was my big highlight, a trip to northern Italy. Forgive any hamming it up with some cheesy clichés, but Parma certainly exceeded all my expectations for incident and vibrant sporting life.

The rugby was highly satisfying – too often some of these contests between a team from an IRB founder nation and one from an emerging rugby country can turn into a one-sided contest and produce candyfloss play overloaded with cheap tries and sickly defence.

Not on this occasion. Overmach Parma’s forwards gave London Irish a thorough working over and the green-shirted Irish support – estimated at somewhere between 600 and 800 and outnumbering the home fans – knew that a fortunate 19-11 winning margin flattered their team.

Sporting serendipity also smiled on the Irish fans after the game as Parma’s town square played host to the visit of the Olympic torch, no less. A ceremony was staged to light the way to the Torino 2006 winter games in a few weeks’ time.

Anti-globalisation protesters staged a low-key and dignified protest against corporate influence over the Olympic movement. Some even knew their rugby as they gave me a clenched fist salute and chanted “London Irish!”

If that was the good and bad of sporting controversy, the ugly was kicking off a few hundred yards down the road. Bizzarely, hundreds of fans from the Serie B team Catania, from Italy’s southern outpost of Sicily, were rioting at the train station en route from playing northern Italian team Brescia. Baton-and-shield wielding Carabinieri had to be sent in to quell the tifosi violenti.

Ironically, Italy’s most dreaded fans, the ultras of Lazio, were due in town the following day for a Serie A clash. But this riveting football encounter passed off peacefully at the Stadio Tardini, despite relegation-threatened Parma earning a draw with a cheeky goal that would have certainly been ruled offside if Fifa hadn’t controversially eased interpretations this past summer.

Parma forward Bernardo Corrado was probably correctly deemed by the ref not to be “interfering” as he was retreating from an offside position. But rather amusingly, just as the flag-waving linesman was overruled, Corrado quickly changed direction towards goal, the play was taken forward by another onside Parma player and Corrado netted the equaliser a mere six seconds after receiving his offside amnesty. Hence an intriguing loophole in the new interpretations that I wonder if we will see repeated in a far more high-profile match than this – in the World Cup perhaps?

Fascinating also seeing former Premiership player Paolo Di Canio strut his stuff so soon after his recent high-profile notoriety in his choice of “salutes” to his fans. But he was on his best behaviour this time in Parma and it was a pleasure watching his cultured contribution to the technically excellent Lazio team as I roundly booed him for 90 minutes.

An eventful Parma sporting weekend was not quite over, however. Soon after the final whistle, around a thousand home fans marched in disciplined fashion back round to the front of the Stadio Tardini carrying banners demanding answers from their board about Parma’s perilous financial position and who will own the club in future – apparently the club should have been sold recently to a Spanish consortium led by a former Real Madrid president but no one knows what is now happening.

The demonstration was resolute but good-humoured and another insight into the passion of Italian fans for their teams.

These experiences are a bonus from rugby travelling. London Irish hold the distinction of probably being the most well-travelled rugby team in Europe over the past 10 years since an early trip to Romania, frequent stop-offs in central and northern Italy, a marvellous trip to the one “natural” rugby area of non-Basque Spain, Valladolid, and countless criss-crossing of the rugby-mad stronghold of southern France.

As a result, London Irish fans have ended up with an enduring affection for the second-tier European competition, the Challenge Cup, that we are usually consigned to after perennially failing to qualify for the more glamorous and high-profile Heineken Cup. The more lowly European competition has tended to provide the more exotic and interesting tourist experiences for the hardcore Irish traveller.

The one year we actually qualified for the Heineken in 2002-03 did give us two splendid games against the aristocrats of Toulouse but were also notable for some quite anti-climatic games with Welsh and Scottish teams.

We are probably resigned to having to slum it back in the Heineken next year given Irish’s outstanding run of form this season under new head coach Brian Smith. But I’m guessing the curtailment of some of our trips to more exotic rugby outposts will be accepted if, and it’s a fateful “if”, we finally achieve our destiny of a return “home” and a Gaelic battle royale against one of the Irish provinces.

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