Phil Fitzgerald: Vive la France and its proud, passionate love for rugby
TOULON sits on the Mediterranean coast of the south-east of France, between Nice and Marseille. The large harbour is truly impressive and Toulon is the city which enjoys the most annual sunshine in France (apparently). However, what the Toulonnais are really passionate about is the RCT, the local rugby team, which celebrates its centenary this very year.
Toulon's ground, the Stade Flix Mayol, must be one of the few rugby stadiums in a town centre and the locals regard it with enormous affection. It is the pulse of the town.
I would quickly discover that training involved a lot more contact than I had been used to. Wednesday training was essentially a full-blown match with the starting team for the following weekend playing the shadow team. Come game day, I had my first taste of the pre-match meal, the salad being followed by chicken and pasta, the desert being fromage blanc with copious amounts of sugar, followed by a stream of strong coffee. The meal is exactly the same for every game.
Match preparation was also an eye opener. Before my first run-out with the U23s, the forwards got together as soon as we got to the ground. The most important message was that if ever the opposition hooker tried to strike for our ball, our second row was to thump him. With time I learned two important lessons. Firstly, that your own second row can miss the target and thump his own front row. Secondly, when you decide to hook on opposition ball then you'd better clench your jaw.
Eleven years have passed since I joined the club and I am still with Toulon. The club has undergone a major revolution over the last three years, catalysed to a great extent by the president, Mourad Boudjellal, and head coach Tana Umaga. Boudjellal took the club over in 2006, when it had just been relegated from the Top 14.
The 2007-8 season was great to be involved in. Under Umaga, Toulon were promoted back to the Top 14 with a team that included George Gregan, Andrew Mehrtens, Dan Luger, Anton Oliver and Victor Matfield. The team was celebrated at the town hall in front of what seemed like most of the town and this year's side once again plays in front of 15,000 every home game.
Jerry Collins, Joe Van Niekerk and rugby league star Sonny Bill Williams have joined the club and hope has been very high in town for a big start. Expectations are huge and there has been pressure on the club and the high-profile players to perform.
People are very demanding of Jerry Collins, but he puts his body on the line every weekend and Joe Van Niekerk has quickly become the crowd's favourite. Sonny Bill Williams picked up a knock early on, but everyone is looking forward to getting him back on to the pitch. The league is very tough and Toulouse, Bayonne, Perpignan and Stade Franais have started strongly. The team knows that we are not far off the mark, and it is often little details that are letting us down and making the difference at full time. Team spirit is very good and the feeling is very positive that we can rival the top teams.
• Scotland A international Phil Fitzgerald plays hooker for Toulon in the French top league
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