Two GAA teams played ahead of Toulon vs Stade Francais and the French fans absolutely loved it
35,000 French rugby fans crammed into Nice's Allianz Riviera Stadium on Sunday to watch Toulon take on Stade Francais in a clash of Top 14 rugby giants. The thousands that showed up early were treated to a rip-roaring GAA match.
The stadium will host a number of Euro 2016 games and also plays host to a handful of high-profile Toulon games over the course of each season.
GAA is on the up in France and Sunday's match was given the greatest stage imaginable.
Azur Gaels, who were set up by Chard Faul and Charley Cornillau in September 2015, hosted GF Provence and played out a humdinger that set the stage for Toulon's 23-16 win over last season's league champions.
Suzie McElhinney Glynn, who played full forward for Gaels, was the only woman taking part in the exhibition. She, very kindly, put together the following match report:
GF Provence edge Azur Gaels by one point in thriller
By Suzie McElhinney Glynn
Following a very one-sided women's rugby game where the local Nice side annihilated the opposition, the Azur Gaels and GF Provence ran from the tunnel, side by side onto the pitch of the Allianz Riviera Stadium, a 35,000 capacity stadium, for an historic Gaelic Football match in France. Never before has the sport in France had such a huge stage!
Perhaps, due to the fact that the match was not rugby, the crowd were mostly concentrating on themselves and refreshments at the throw in. Their attention however, was almost immediately grabbed by the instant physicality and show of skill from both teams and an immediate goal from Azur front man Chard Faul.
Azur Gaels then continued to be dominant through the opening first half, adding two more goals early on, again from Faul, with GF Provence replying with three points from play, again capturing the rugby crowd with the quick play, high scoring and attacking nature of the game. It didn't look however to be GF Provence's day after hitting the upright and missing a couple of clear chances as the half drew to a close.
Half time came and Azur Gaels were 3-0 to 0-3 up. However, to the Gaels dismay, and the crowd’s excitement, GF Provence came out swinging in the second half. Pinned into their own half the Gaels conceded point after point narrowing their lead as the second half progressed.
Senan Ross of GF Provence seemed to have found the space he didn't have in the first half and punished the Gaels for any loose pass with accurate kicks bringing the scores closer as the second half drew on.
The turning point of the game came as some overzealous last-ditch defending from the big men in the Azur back line left referee Dimitri Martin with no choice but to award GF Provence a penalty. Ross stepped up to the plate and ruthlessly seized the three points, driving the ball hard and low into the bottom-left corner. It was bitter pill for Gaels’ goalkeeper Cédrik Piquot, who had made a crucial stop in the first half and seemed determine to let nothing past.
With minutes left this changed the momentum of the game. For most of the second half the Gaels seemed to be defending their lead, but were now on the attack again, and the crowd were fully involved. Faul was in full flight again for the Gaels, and apart from two unfortunate slips may have sealed the game for the Gaels. Charley Cornillau was also in great form, with some last-minute blocks and interceptions for the Gaels with all to play for as the match went end to end.
In the dying minutes GF Provence then latched onto a loose ball just inside the Gaels’ half and pressed forward to secure a point.
At this stage, it became clear that the French rugby crowd were not only following the game but also understood the scoring; their verbal response showed they were well aware that GFP had taken the lead for the first time in the game.
Azur Gaels pressed forward valiantly with seconds to spare, and with the last kick of the game an attempted point kick for a draw edged narrowly wide to conplete a very close game.
With applause from the crowd still echoing the two teams took to the centre circle for photographs and then a lap of honour of the pitch, much to the continued applause of the new Gaelic Football fans, resounding proof of the meteoric rise of Azur Gaels in its short, four-month history.
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