Wooden elephant

The Wooden elephant of Nantes. Pic: Fiona Tchen.

Dragons, Pumas And Wooden Elephants . . . It’s A Wild Old Time In France

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From Hamish Stuart in Marseille

Welsh fans were in a great place to witness what might have been the best weekend of rugby ever, starting with a mechanical elephant and ending with a Portuguese flourish.

Nantes, either in the stadium or in a bar with a TV, was a special place to be.

Who would have thought the Argentinians and Japanese could be such fun!

There is a lot to get through, but the weekend started with the mechanical elephant – a special feature of Nantes’ Musee des Machines, rather like the elephants outside the gates of Gondor in Lord of the Rings, complete with a viewing gallery for around 20 people.

It made progress a bit like Wales in this World Cup – unstoppable, determined and unflashy, but you would not want to be in the way.

Then, Wales completed the revenge mission against Georgia, but made the game pretty exciting at the same time – close, even, until Louis Rees-Zammit showed his special qualities on the way to his first Wales hat-trick.

But the following day back at the Beaujoire Stadium was even better.

When the Argentinians sing it is like Hymns and Arias on steroids. Where the Welsh counter-harmonise, the Argentinians bounce and wave their arms in the air with total exuberance.

The Japanese fans were committed and serious supporters, but smiley, friendly and their chants of ‘Nipon, Nipon’ ringing round the stadium did not give way to anyone.

Argentina won a close game, but then the teams did the lap of honour together, the fans of both teams applauded and bowed to the players, and it felt like a sport with integrity.

Fans swapped jerseys, as though they had played. An Englishman admitted in the good-natured queue for the toilet, “I was in Lille yesterday (for England v Samoa), did not drink and drove through the night to get to this game.

“Thank God I did, it has restored my faith in rugby!”

English, Welsh and French fans applauded Japanese and Argentine fans as they returned to the city centre.

It was all a bit different from how England fans are greeted in Cardiff, to say the least.

There was the woman from Tregaron, in her Japanese Blossoms shirt, because she went to the 2019 World Cup in Japan and enjoyed it so much she came to France to support Japan.

It was just happy coincidence Wales were playing at the same venue.

And then just when you thought things could not get any better, it was time to watch Fiji against Portugal.

Fiji were in the strange position of being the Big Boys up against the Fans’ Favourites.

Portugal played with a style they never compromised. They had been a surprise package all tournament, as Warren Gatland has never tired of pointing out.

Everyone in our bar in Nantes wanted Portugal to win, but for Fiji to get the losing bonus point which would also knock out Australia.

When Portugal kicked the ball out to ensure just that, there was the biggest cheer of the night.

We speculated Australia were waiting in their Qantas jet for the return journey, at times starting to taxi along the runway and at times turning around just in case.

In the end, it was time for take-off after all.

So, next up is Marseille for the quarter-finals, England and Wales avoiding each other for now.

Travelling down from Nantes made Toulouse the obvious place to stop off, to see if there were any celebrating Portuguese fans who had yet to make it out of one of the great rugby towns.

We were not disappointed.

The Portuguese celebration songs were still ringing round the Toulouse city square into the Monday night air.

But after the fun and colour of the group stages, it is down to serious business.

Those Argentinian chants will be in opposition to Hymns and Arias this weekend.

Wales are due to name their starting line-up on Thursday, with Aaron Wainwright expected to be switched from blindside flanker as injured Taulupe Faletau’s replacement.

It is not a criticism of the replacements to say that his talents would be missed by any team in the world.

That could mean captain Jac Morgan wearing the number six shirt and Tommy Reffell starting at openside, although Dan Lydiate and Christ Tshiunza could also be back-row options.

There will be music and laughter in Marseille, but no mechanical elephants.

Let us hope the methodical progress of Wales will continue, nonetheless.

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