After a previous successful trip in 2015, the Black Knights from Ards Rugby Club recently returned to St Savin Rugby Club in the south of France to partake in ‘les pots au feu’ a prestigious veterans tournament to compete with rugby clubs from all over Europe.
The Ards Squad travelled early last Friday, utilising a range of connecting flights and coach transfers before checking in at the highly acclaimed Mister Bed hotel in Bourgoin Jallieu. The Black Knights met up with our resort guide, the inimitable Bernard Easement from St Savin Rugby Club. Bernard escorted us to a local watering hole, where the squad could discuss tactics, run through moves, and prepare for the early start in a professional manner.
The tournament started on Saturday morning, at St Savin Rugby Club in a truly beautiful setting. Lying in an East/West valley, overlooked by vineyards on the nearby hills, the pitches were framed by a picturesque town hall on one side and a 17th century chapel and clock tower on the other. Thankfully the Black Knights knew all about 'l'esprit de clocher' so were expecting a tough challenge from the local teams and their fellow tourists.
The weather was perfect for running rugby, and the team of Ards athletes crawled out of the changing room to face their toughest test of the tour so far, the warm up. Past President Alistair Wilson offered to 'beast' the boys into submission, however the lads instead followed the advice of that other former club leader Rodney 'The Comber Cannonball' Jess, who advised that a glass of wine and a croissant always did the trick for him.
First up for the Strangford lough men was the opening tie of the tournament on the main pitch against Jouven Ceps. Ards got the better of the opening exchanges with skipper David Thompson and Shane Barr carrying strongly and providing a useful platform for Matchett and Bell to link with their three quarters. Stewart Paul made the initial line break before feeding Ards all-time leading try scorer Cyril Stocker who fittingly opened the scoring for the men in black. Shane Stewart was going well and as the Jouven midfield had to focus more men trying to stop the powerful kiwi, this left space on the flanks and both Gordy McBride and Chrissy Allen scored out wide to give Ards a healthy half time lead. A quick tactical chat and a significant moment for Ards as long time club sponsor Ricky Poulter crossed the whitewash to represent his beloved club for the first time. The Ards attack was hotter than one of Poults multi fuel high efficiency Scandinavian stoves as they cut the Jouven defence open at will. Stevie Bell and then Stewart Paul dotted down to give Ards an impressive 5-0 victory in the opening round of games.
Second match for Ards was against the host club St Savin who name their veterans team after the tournament ‘Les pots au feu’ which translates as pot of fire and is a traditional French stew which is at its best with all the correct ingredients and that serves as the principles behind the tournament. While Ards were playing an expansive game, the knights were only able to do so once a platform had been laid and with Ashley Paden, Stuart Stevenson and Geoff Garrett doing the lifting at the lineout, hooker David Chivers was able to pick off his main target John Dowey with regular efficiency and this was the platform for much of Ards attacking play. Chris Webster started brightly on Saturday in the unfamiliar position of flanker but Webby’s physicality was critical in Ards maintaining a clean sheet throughout their second game as well.
Again significant moments for the old town team as Stewart Porter and Isaac Boss made their first starts for the Black Knights. In doing so they joined their respective family members Max and Brad in contributing significantly in the famous black shirt. A John Dowey lineout steal led to the opener for Stocker who unfortunately tore a hamstring in the act of scoring and would be the first of Ards big game players to succumb to a tournament ending injury. Ards also scored through Stewart Porter, John McCartney and Shane Stewart before Graham Taylor stamped his authority with a strong run to dot down on the final whistle. A second 5-0 win for the County Down men set the pace for a high scoring tournament and opened an early gap on the leaderboard.
Ards were pinned back during their third game against the Garda Old Bulls. Despite taking a lead on the stroke of half time with another score from Gordy McBride, a succession of injuries in the second period meant the knights lost all momentum. Isaac Boss (hamstring), Shane Barr (ankle) and Neil Workman (bicep) all had to come off and in the case of Boss and Workman their tournaments came to a premature ending. The Gards took advantage of the disruption to score twice and despite a superb final play from Ards where Chris Webster was high tackled in an incident that was dirtier than an Andy Matchett profile picture, on this occasion the decision went against Ards and the game ended to see the black men drop their first points of the tournament.
Over the next 30 minutes the Black Knight’s erstwhile physio Jimmy Webster got to work on the walking wounded, with the squad now depleted Jimmy’s work on those carrying knocks became critical as the patched up men in black took to the field in the final game before lunch.
Facing another French side Copains D’Abord, the Newtownards men returned to an expansive gameplan. The Donaghadee express opened the scoring after a wonderful linebreak and pass from Chris Allen, as Gordy McBride and the other Ards speedsters made the most of the hard ground. Ards Captain David Thompson packed down on the flank allowing Graeme Taylor to take on the number eight duties and it was in this game that GT reminded everyone what a potent runner he was off the base of the scrum, a powerful break in the first half added to McBride’s try and then in the second half Taylor tortured the Copains back row with explosive breaks off the scrum. Matchett sensed the French weakness on the blindside and was instrumental in setting Taylor loose on two occasions as he dotted down twice to score a hattrick and ensure maximum points for the Knights.
This allowed Ards to head into the lunch break with a narrow lead at the top of the table. Video analysts Leslie Boyd and Ian Farmer spent the break feeding back some helpful data to enable the Ards lads to fine tune their gameplan for the critical games in the afternoon session.
Les Louh ans Bresse were the first of Ards afternoon opponents and what a start from the men in black. Out half Stephen Bell started the game with a drop out to the openside. Bell’s restart was ‘Sextonesque’ in its delivery with a huge ‘hangtime’ landing with pinpoint accuracy a few centimetres over the 10yard line. Stewart Porter was rolling back the years and using all his experience, including 14 scottish caps, leapt like a salmon from the River Spey to claim the crossfield kick on landing he through an audacious dummy switch and careered through the gap into the French 22. As the Bresse cover defence scrambled across the field he released Shane Stewart who used his famous hand off to fend the ‘would be’ tackler before accelerating into the end zone. This try was a beautifully constructed move and executed with panache and the views of the experienced club members on the sidelines suggested it may well be the greatest try ever scored by an Ards team. Bresse were stunned and Ards set about taking advantage, Porter and Taylor crossed for scores in the first half before Chivers got on the end of a Poulter break. Andy Matchett claimed his score in trademark fashion with one of his legendary dummies and sidesteps before Gordy McBride outpaced the Bresse defence to touch down. Unfortunately Gordy was the latest of the Knights to get struck down with yet another hamstring injury robbing Ards of one of their main strike weapons. Nonetheless a six try romp kept Ards right in contention for honours.
The spate of injuries meant Ards had to embrace a ‘next man up’ policy as the squad strength was tested to the extreme by the closing fixtures. The Black knight spirit was again to the fore in the penultimate game against Brechin Bruce from Scotland. The irony wasn’t lost on the Ards men as their own resident Jock - Stewart Porter did most of the damage in this one. Wee Stewart scored twice, before GT added to his personal haul. Shane Stewart and David Chivers kept the scoreboard ticking and following good work from Geoff Garrett, Porter ran in for his hat-trick. The Scots were a credit to their club, a great bunch of tourists and formed a natural bond with their kindred spirits from Ards both on and off the field and I suspect this isn’t the last time we will lock horns with the men from the East coast.
And so to the finale, Ards went into the final game against the powerful Harlequinze side knowing a slender victory would be enough to claim the trophy. With Thompson, Stewart and Webster leading the defensive effort Ards ensured a shutout. Dowey continued to dominate in the lineout with great lifting from Stevenson and Garrett. Chivers, Poulter and Paden were still working hard and these collective efforts ensured a steady flow of possession. Matchett, Bell and Allen probed the Quinze defence which scrambled desperately conceding penalties and giving the Black knights the opportunity to release Taylor from the base. No one could handle the Ballygowan man all day and he scored two carbon copy tries to lead the Hamilton Park men to a final victory and with it ‘Les Pot Au Feu’
The sideline party were delighted, injured players and tourists embraced while tour sponsor Stevie Robinson even shed a tear as the Connect Comms Black Knights realised they had made history with the highest points total ever achieved in the tournament. The Ardsmen had delivered a tactical masterclass in expansive running rugby, the risks to the old town team were about keeping forward momentum despite the injury count and in this regard every man in black answered the call. The spirit of the club and competitive nature of this touring party was unquestionable and when skipper David Thompson addressed the crowd at the awards ceremony in French with a magnificent speech, the reaction from all teams reinforced the positive image our club and town had been portrayed in.
Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann was once asked to compare NFL to the great game of rugby union, Theismann replied ‘Rugby is great. The players don’t wear helmets or padding; they just beat the living daylights out of each other and then go for a beer. I love that.’ Theismann would have been impressed by the spirit and talent from the Black Knights of Ards RFC and he would have loved St Savin.
The rugby was outstanding but there were other highlights, John McCartney broke the French 400m record for the front crawl and there wasn’t a swimming pool in sight. Chrissy Allen’s bag was last seen being loaded onto a Soyuz rocket for deployment to the international space station. Andy Matchett passed himself off as a German tourist to avoid capture by the Lyon fashion police and Rodney Jess became the heavyweight division European arm wrestling champion.
What a weekend and here’s to the next trip.
Updated 20:33 - 3 Mar 2019 by STEPHEN NUTT