On Saturday, Leinster, the reigning European rugby champions, play Montpellier in their final match of the group phase of this season’s European Cup. Leinster have already qualified for the quarter-finals, a good win on Saturday would see them go into the last eight as Number One seeds.
Arranging to meet a friend for breakfast at a pub near the ground, we disagreed about the kick off time. Checking on the team website was the first time I had noticed, the full name of the opposition is Montpellier-Hérault. They share the department, and a passion for rugby, with Béziers, but Hérault is not just rugby country, it is bull fighting country. The feria at Béziers is said to attract a million visitors. Is there some correlation between the rugby pitch and the bullring?
The passion for ruby and bullfighting is a phenomenon that is common on the Atlantic coast.
The feria at Dax might not match that at Béziers for size, but it manages a similar degree of passion. Each August, thousands of people dressed in white with red neckerchiefs, along with choirs and bands fill the bullring. It always seems sad to a sentimental Englishman that such a vibrant occasion is marred by the killing of animals.
A British visitor said he had been with friends one evening out of curiosity. He had been lucky to get a ticket, but had been mystified that it was considerably cheaper than those of his friends. Reaching the ring, he discovered that while they were in the shade; he caught the full force of the late afternoon sun, leaving him as red as the neckerchiefs the next morning. “The last time I go to a bullfight”, he muttered.
What seemed strange in looking at coverage of the feria in the newspapers was that the ring seemed a place for all the family; the crowd seemed to comprise thousands of people of all ages. Perhaps they grow up with a less sensitive disposition than their peers in Northern Europe.
Family attendance at the feria is matched by family attendance at the rugby matches; the neckerchiefs marking support for the club. Biarritz Olympique and Aviron Bayonnais, both of which, like Montpellier-Hérault, play in the Top 14, the highest level of French rugby, attract whole families to their matches; granted, some may not be wholly engaged with the events on the pitch, but it is nevertheless an event for the whole community.
But why rugby and bullfighting? Why have those sports the power to bind together whole communities in a way that might be rivalled by Gaelic sports in Ireland, but which simply does not happen in Britain? What it about rugby and bullfighting that evoke such passion?