Iain Pope: How quiet pint turned into life-changing rugby adventure

French rugby fans on the Royal Mile. Picture: Greg Macvean
French rugby fans on the Royal Mile. Picture: Greg Macvean
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By the time you read this I will have either, yet again, torn up the annual ‘Scotland to win the Grand Slam’ betting slip or I will be checking out flights to Rome to make sure I witness Scotland’s inevitable tournament triumph.

Hope, it’s the Scottish disease.

The now ritual trip to the bookies in Shandwick Place in the week before European rugby’s annual pageant kicks off always unfolds the same way.

I sidle in, the ladies behind the counter nudge each other while I write out my chit before gingerly approaching the till.

Then there’s the exchange of glances, a gentle “are you sure, son?” or a “God loves an optimist eh?” as I hand over £10 like a proper Charlie buying his chocolate bar.

Of course I know that, most years, I’d be as well rolling up the tenner and taking a blowtorch to it, but the way I rationalise it is that, at odds that have varied from 25-1 to 200-1, Scotland only need to win the Grand Slam once more in my lifetime for me to break even.

But, while the vision of skipping euphorically along the road to collect my loot is undoubtedly sweet, the Six Nations is, to me, much more about winning or losing. In truth I know as much of the laws of rugby as I do about the laws of hydrodynamics, which is to say, zilch.

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It’s about moments of unexpected friendship, camaraderie, laughter and I will cheerfully admit I suspend my usual cynicism for its duration.

To explain the birth of this Moonie-like devotion …

It happened entirely by accident, on Saturday, 23 March, 2002, to be precise.

I was sitting in The Hebrides Bar indulging in what I had hoped would be a quiet early afternoon pint; the fact that this was the Saturday of a Six Nations weekend having passed me by perhaps perfectly illustrating my credentials as A Proper Fan.

I was enjoying my paper when in stormed a group of Frenchmen, complete with trumpets, kazoos, berets, onion strings, the works – ’Allo ’Allo made real.

The leader fixed on me, and approached as I tried to hide in the TV pages. He nudged me and leaned in, as if to tell me a secret.

“We arrrrr French,” he said in my ear. “Really?” I said, folding the paper in defeat.

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“Zis is our first time in Scotland, and we come to make big fiesta. We drive from Paris and we aff much cognac, saucisson and fromage. Tell us, where should we go?”

It’s fair to say that encounter, though I didn’t know it then, would change my life.

After sharing a pint, I told him that he and his pals should enjoy the game, and that if he wanted a party in a good rugby pub after the game he could do worse than The Oxford Bar.

With a toot toot, the throng wandered out towards Murrayfield, I assumed never to be seen again.

But they did indeed turn up at The Oxford that night, and it’s fair to say we enjoyed a shindig the likes of which I wish I could remember more.

Of course, like most chance encounters, it could have ended there, a vague and happy memory.

It didn’t. Instead, the foundations of what would become some of the most enduring bonds of my life were being formed. The next bricks were laid when my wife persuaded me to call the group when we next visited Paris later that year. Our planned romantic weekend was replaced by legendary hospitality and, dare I say it, the blossoming of Bromances.

Fast forward to 2018 and we are all a bit older, greyer and the group has morphed, grown, contracted and grown again, a living, evolving thing. New friends, new generations.

The rugby is no more than a convenient hook, a pin in the calendar. but there isn’t a significant date in each of our lives over the intervening 17 years which we haven’t shared – birthdays, weddings (Ah Jesus, the weddings), baptisms, graduations, holidays together. All of it, good and bad, shared in a riot of Franglish and sign language.

It is quite simply nothing I can describe, and it is a huge and unexpected privilege.

Next weekend our friends will be here again, and we will enjoy showing off this beautiful city to them.

So here is to serendipity, and to the suspension of cynicism for a few weeks each spring.

And if a Frenchman offers you saucisson next weekend, take it from me, accept it. Who knows where it could lead you?