The cardiologist warned that stress could cause a recurrence of angina, but not to worry as it would not kill me. “Sure, hearts flutter at rugby matches”. Indeed, they do, and one of the problems of new technology is that it allows more possibilities of flutters. Watching coverage of this evening’s match between Aviron Bayonnais and Stade Francais in San Sebastian, there was much cause for flutters. Bayonne are struggling against relegation and a win was critical – they eventually triumphed against their Parisian opponents by twenty-four point to nineteen, but are still in danger of dropping out of the Top 14, the premier league of French rugby.
Five years ago, we attended the corresponding fixture. A summer’s evening and we set off from a French campsite armed with three Spanish phrases, not a word of Basque, and three tickets for for the upper east stand at the Stade Anoeta (capacity 32,000 and home of Spanish soccer club Real Sociedad)
It was astonishing how much that journey had differed from travelling to San Sebastian in the 1980s. Travelling to that piece of coastline in 1988 was a different matter altogether. We had four currencies in the car (Irish Punts, Sterling, French Francs and Pesetas), constantly trying to avoid mixing them up. Driving in Europe meant having a Green Card for insurance, added to which there was an International Bail Bond for travelling in Spain. The Basque country was economically very poor – hay was still being cut with scythes in valleys running inland from the coast; roads were poor; shops had a very limited range of stuff on sale; crossing the border from Spain into France felt like travelling through time.
Twenty years on from that first visit, open borders, EU co-operation, a single currency, and free markets had transformed the situation to the extent that transferring a rugby match from a stadium that held 15,000 to one thirty miles away that held 30,000 was a routine matter – a “delocalisation” was the official term for the change of venue, except this delocalisation was from one country to another.
The EU may be overburdened with costly bureaucracy and riddled with corrupt practices (though it is hard to believe such things did not happen at national level), but anyone driving the road that evening could not have denied that some things had changed for the good.
Europe has shrunk, much of the shrinkage is due to integration, much of it due to Michael O’Leary. Were it not for the demands of the clerical life, there would have been a temptation to have bought tickets for a Ryanair flight down to Biarritz, and a bus down to San Sebastian, to attend the clash at the Anoeta – and it might have cost less than a night out in Dublin. It would have been an expedition that was not good for the heart, but the sound of “Allez, allez, Aviron Bayonnais” echoing around the stadium would have been a great lift for the spirits.