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WORCESTER R.F.C - TOUR EN FRANCE 1977
As a relatively new convert to Rugby Football my first experience of a Worcester overseas tour provided something of a rude awakening - quite literally. The Astons coach that was to carry us to Heathrow airport was due to leave Sixways at daybreak and to avoid missing the 5.30am departure. I left my Droitwich home under a pitch-black sky. Not a single light was showing as I approached the slumbering clubhouse and convinced that I was the first to arrive I was surprised to find the entrance doorway unlocked. I tiptoed into the club bar and fell headlong over a large object on the floor, triggering much snuffling and grunting before a dim light was switched on revealing most of the tour party who had decided to sleep on chairs, benches and the clubhouse floor overnight to avoid missing the coach. Although I lacked their tour experience, I had gained a few pre-tour bruises!
The trip to Heathrow airport was reasonably uneventful although a few feathers were ruffled when Margaret Thatcher’s right-hand man, Willie Whitelaw, was ushered in front of us at the baggage check-in. The tour to the south of France involved three matches; against rugby clubs in Draguiguan, Hyères and Carqueiranne over the Easter weekend in April 1977. Our Air France Boeing Super B727 was bound for Nice airport at the heart of the Côte d’Azur and carried Worcester players representing each of the senior sides and a handful of club ‘elders’: George Everton, John Morewood, Geoff Morey, Jeremy Richardson and Peter Richardson – the group affectionately referred to as ‘Dad’s Army’.
The aforementioned George Everton, who presumably had packed his suitcase carefully, had for some reason not carried his spectacles to his seat on the plane. When an airline steward asked George to complete an immigration form he was unable to read the small print. His big mistake was asking Peter Richardson to fill in his card and when he submitted his entry document at Immigration Control in Nice the French official looked puzzled. George it seemed was claiming to be Fred Flintstone, born in Alabama. The popular Worcester veteran, who spoke 'un pue' French, was ushered to a side room where he endeavoured to explain the vagaries of rugby tour humour. Meanwhile, the players and the remaining geriatrics, intent on drinking France dry, sat on a coach outside the airport for what seem an eternity until Monsieur Flinstone emerged from his French inquisition.
Towards the end of that first day (Thursday, April 7) the Worcester party entered Hotel le Tropic in Hyères and after settling into the thirteen twin-bedded rooms marched their healthy appetites into the dining room. The French coastal resort was a popular sailing centre and in 1977 was being used as a pre-Olympic training venue by international yachting teams. The Worcester players were unphased by the fact that they were sharing the dining room with the East German yachting squad and set about the well-established tour tradition of launching ice cream and bread rolls in every direction. The East Germans, strong in seamanship but light on humour, moved out of the hotel the following morning.
Post-meal, the Worcester party executed a nifty open side break to explore the golden beaches, shimmering sea, busy marinas and multitude of waterfront bars and cafés in Hyères. Returning to their hotel after the first of numerous heavy drinking sessions a well-oiled group crossed an open green space on which sat a small multi-coloured tent which suggested that a travelling circus was in town.
The ‘tiny top’ was encircled by a number of Romany caravans and traveller’s wagons and a number of circus ponies were tethered to stakes in the ground. Mike Robins, who claimed he had always wanted to ride a horse bareback, was encouraged by George Everton who pulled a stake from the ground. Scoop scrambled onto the liberated pony and then attempted to stand on the sleepy steed’s back. The rowdy tour onlookers created such a stir that lights soon burst into life in the surrounding caravans and swarthy and irate figures appeared in the doorways. Scoop, oblivious to the fact that the circus folk were encircling him, suddenly noticed that his Worcester team ‘mates’ had evaporated into the warm Côtes d’Azur atmosphere, self-preservation encouraging them to sprint in search of the nearest escape route. Suddenly I found myself leading the fastest moving pack ever to grace French turf and, consequently, have no recollection of how Scoop’s big break into show business was resolved.
Good Friday had been set aside for acclimatisation and relaxation and Dad's Army, displaying a laid-back, relaxed holiday attitude, decided to settle outside a café bar beneath a colourful parasol. As each round of drinks arrived, they inched their shaded table and chairs towards the kerbside and their ability to imbibe large quantities of French liquor was matched by their determination to settle their hosts furniture in the middle of the road outside the bar. Cars were forced to mount kerb to circumnavigate the inebriated elders until a local bus came along and brought an end to the jolly jaunt. Throughout the day, those in the know, applied copious quantities of liquid medication to anaesthetise their bodies against the pain and discomfiture to be inflicted over the next three days. Travelling to Draguiguan for their opening tour match twenty-four hours later the party saw posters in shops, and bars describing Worcester’s opening tour match as 'international' and whilst the hospitality at Rugby Club Dragenois was warm, it proved deceptively disarming.
Having dispensed liberal measures of cocktails, an impressive array of French sporting manhood took their places at lunch, sitting at a long trestle table and regularly refilling the empty wine glasses of Worcester's best. It came as something of a surprise when the XV that rumbled out of the home side’s changing room in the Stade Municipal was not the squad that had assisted Worcester's liquid pre-match festivities! Unsurprisingly, the sports pages of Nice-Matin the following day carried the headline "Le R.C.D. domine Worcester (30-20)" although Neville South, Alan Williams and Chris Archer were mentioned in dispatches. Struggling to disguise a smile the local Mayor presented every member of the tour party with a large bronze medallion in a splendid presentation box. Ever the professionals and on medical advice from Bill Mercer, the team devoured further mountains of French cuisine and downed huge quantities of alcohol late into the night, the ideal preparation for Sunday’s game against Hyères.
The game, played in front of a 300-400 strong crowd, was preceded by the National Anthems and what has been described as "a frenzied display of necking between Nev (Worcester captain Neville South) and the French captain". The tourists faced strong opposition but, running on pure alcohol fumes, miraculously recorded a tour victory in Le Stade du Pyanet, the skipper describing the pack's performance as 'superb'. The euphoria was short-lived, the Worcester side losing 27-9 to Carqueiranne in the final tour match the following day. The host XV included two French Internationals, one of whom re-arranged Neville South’s features, completely flattening his nose with a boot while the skipper lay on the ground. Bill Mercer’s attempts to restore the shape of his nose with plugs of cotton wool was truly admirable and watching the two adversaries drinking at the bar after the game was a memorable moment for both Carqueiranne and Worcester members alike.
The three tour matches proved to be small punctuation points betwixt exciting air flights, eventful coach journeys, considerable food consumption, litres of liquor and the resultant hangovers. French hospitality was outstanding, hilarity knew no bounds and behaviour, as you would expect, represented the best traditions of a rugby tour. Much of it defies description here, but remember... What goes on tour, stays on tour!
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