Appearing in the programme for the last home game, Graham McKechnie has allowed us to publicise this across the supporters network. We had a good time (result aside) in Clermont – spare a thought for the pre-Great War travellers!
If you’re travelling to France for the rugby, take soap and a towel. Although the French hotels, particularly in Paris, are good, if you want a proper wash you must remember this. “They don’t seem to realise a Britisher’s wants in this respect.”
We can thank the splendid Jimmy Minahan, secretary of the East Midlands RFU a century ago, for this sage advice. Next weekend we’re on our travels once more, to that power base rugby city Clermont. And while it’s less of a journey into the unknown than it was when Minahan was writing in 1911, there’s still a spirit of adventure whenever we set off.
The story of Saints in Europe is a relatively short one. But for an annual jaunt to Wales and occasional sorties to Ireland Scotland and Canada, Saints rarely travelled far until the advent of professionalism and European competition 21-years ago.
Instead, we can thank the East Midlands for establishing the precedent of Anglo-French matches – and thank Jimmy Minahan who was the driving force behind these pioneering trips. This remarkable man – now largely forgotten – assembled his happy band of rugby travellers every year. They would have us believe they were rugby missionaries – zealously spreading the word in far off places. They did a bit of that, but they also had an uproariously good time.
The East Midlands trips down to Toulouse started in 1909. Ordinarily, the East Midlands teams were amalgamations of Saints and Bedford, but for these matches in France, the make-up of these touring sides was eclectic, to say the least. The selection was not based on merit, but who could wangle time off from work, and with so many Saints players of the time working men from the shoe-factories, they were not as well represented as usual. You suspect being a good chap was also a consideration. Edgar Mobbs always captained the team – Teddy Cook was usually there too. To boost numbers, Minahan called on his friends – the likes of the great Wallaby Tom Richards who popped along in 1913.
They’d assemble at Charing Cross on Sunday morning and, by that evening they would be in Toulouse. It was quite an event right from their arrival. “We received a great welcome from a huge crowd of Stade Toulousains,” wrote Minahan. “They provided a motor bus gaily decorated with flags and as we drove past the cafes and wide boulevards the good folk stood and cheered most heartily.” Two matches were usually played. On the Monday they would take on Toulouse’s second string as a loosener, before playing the famous “rouge et noir” on the Tuesday. The temptations of Toulouse had to be resisted on the Monday night: “Happily our men took their football very seriously, and were in bed for a long night’s rest,” Minahan cheerfully told reporters.
The matches against the Toulouse first team were, of course, the main event, and the locals turned out in festival spirit – more than 15,000 crammed into the old Pont Jumeaux ground on the banks of the river. Toulouse were no mugs. They won their first French title in 1912 as the power base in French rugby began to shift away from the Paris giants Stade and Racing
Over the five years of visiting Toulouse, the East Midlands won more than they lost, but the matches were evenly contested. There were a few French idiosyncrasies to overcome. The French referee was “most extraordinary” according to Minahan. “Plenty of whistle when the ball goes out of play but seems to ignore all illegalities such as putting the ball in straight, holding when the ball has gone, charging etc. In fact, he is most incompetent.” The Englishmen were also somewhat perplexed with the Gallic attitude to half-time. While they waited out on the field during the break, the French disappeared into the stands and were seen drinking wine and nonchalantly smoking cigarettes with their families.
What impressed the East Midlands most was the attitude of the spectators, who embraced the visitors as if they were their own, most notably in 1913. Willett of Bedford had a shot at goal to win the match at the death. His team-mates watched on anxiously as hordes of home supporters lined the touch-line. Mobbs organised his men. “We decided that if the kick were successful, we would stand back-to-back, fighting our way to the pavilion and hold out till the mounted gendarmes came to rescue us,” wrote Craven. “The kick was successful, and at once twenty thousand spectators rushed towards us. I thought my last hour had come, but to our astonishment, we were carried off the ground shoulder high and cheered the whole way back to the city.”
No-one says much about the banquets they held after the matches or whether any of them fell prey to the dark temptations on offer at the masked ball they attended. They leave that to our imaginations a century on. Bleary-eyed and fuzzy-headed, the journey back to Blighty was undertaken the following morning.
Mobbs came out of retirement to lead the final such trip to Toulouse in February 1914. It is a sad afterthought of course that many of these happy adventurers would be back in France before long, playing the “greater game” of war. And many – including Mobbs – would not return. But for now, I prefer to think of them in these care-free days – enjoying their salad days while they still could, laughing, joking, drinking, galavanting.
These were the trailblazers. We head to Clermont next weekend to similarly enjoy ourselves, and it’s partly down to them. Try to make time to raise a glass to their memory. Just don’t forget your soap.