Watching rugby at the Stade Jean Bouin is like no other sporting experience. Only in Paris, a city which embraces individuality, can ten thousand people arrive to watch a rugby match dressed in pink replica shirts, waving pink flags and holding heart-shaped pink balloons.
When I entered the stadium of Stade Francais it was immediately obvious that any preconceived ideas I had about rugby, its players, supporters and traditions were about to be challenged head-on. Flying in the face of sporting masculinity, the pre-match entertainment consisted of “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”.
Unlike the generic modern stadium experience, this was spectating as it used to be. Your ticket has no number so you can sit where you like and stand if you want. Home and away fans mix together and there are no big screens, no neon advertising hoardings and no executive boxes. Like so much of French culture, rugby is clinging on to its roots in the face of corporate globalization.
At either end of the Virage Paris drummers led the crowd in chants of allez, allez, allez le Stade Francais. Pink and blue flags were raised to greet every piece of good play but despite dominating for much of the first half, Stade Francais trailed Auch by nine points at halftime. The crowd, however, were not too disappointed. In sport, as in so much else, there is a distinctive French way of doing things. The home team had attempted to score tries, refusing to kick penalty goals, and this decision to play an attacking open game pleased the crowd.
February in Paris is cold and the break in play resulted in a gleeful rush to the drinks stalls below the stands. The vin chaud (hot wine) was the drink of choice and sold out quickly. In the second half Stade Francais changed their game plan. They kicked their penalties, which annoyed the crowd, and despite a home victory the final whistle brought with it disapproving boos. Winning in Paris, it seemed, is not always enough; you need to do it in a Parisian style.
A short walk northeast of the Stade Jean Bouin is the home of the French Open tennis tournament, Roland Garros, which is open all year for tours and visits to the Tenniseum.