In 1888 Vincent Van Gogh left a dull grey Paris and headed south by train for the unique almost heavenly light of Provence.
“May artists come together in Provence” was Van Gogh’s wish, and on a warm weekend in May, the Impressionists of the Top 14 came together in Marseille for two semi final matches at the Orange Velodrome.
On a Friday night as the dusky colours of the Var framed the brightly lit stadium hosted the first semi final between La Rochelle and Toulon.
The blistering heat of the day gave way to a warm sultry evening and the 9pm kick off was a meteorological relief to both players and spectators.
I have never encountered such an atmosphere at a rugby match, the 63,642 at the Orange Velodrome created a deafening gladiatorial cacophony of noise from the start to finish.
The yellow flags seemed to vastly outnumber those of the Toulonais as they draped down the stands like an Atlantic wave from their coastal home, “yellow submarine” was belted out as the Beatles never intended, but it was joyous expression from fans of a team that has shaken the old order of the Top 14 this season.
Even the mountains peeped in to watch Brock James and Leigh Halfpenny in their kicking dual, and as La Rochelle built up a 15-6 lead an undisputed red card for Pierre Aguillon on fifty-five minutes turned the match.
As Leigh Halfpenny clawed back the deficit, it looked like extra time was on the cards, with the scores level at 15-15, but with 80:26 on the clock, Toulon conjured up the spirit of Jonny and Anthony Bellau dropped a goal from in front of the posts to send Toulon northwards to the final in Paris.
The second semi final, on Saturday, kicked off in blistering heat at the earlier time of 6pm, a record Top 14 semi final crowd of 64,123 witnessed a match that had pretty much everything, seven tries, a red card and an incident where a spectator climbed into the press box.
Clermont led 19-6 at half time looking the better side, then a minute in to the second half Clermont’s Phillip Van Der Merwe was red carded for taking out a player in the air.
Dan Carter kicked two quick penalties for Racing bringing the score to 19-13.
Down to fourteen Clermonts choking tag was gripping tightly around their collective neck, but on this occasion they went for broke and ran Racing ragged with breath taking lines of running, and offloads, that created tries for Lopez and Lee and with ten minutes left Clermont were home and hosed at 37-12
Masoe scored two tries in the 70th and 77th minute and Tameifuna scored a third on minute 80, ultimately Racing left it too late, and the celebrations began for the Michelin men who now face Toulon in the final at Stade de France next Sunday.
So as the “artists” packed their bags, some for the season, others to exhibit their work in Paris next week, the beautiful light of the Var dimmed as the Top 14 semi final weekend came to a close.
As we drifted off to sleep another starry starry night brought dreams of rugby, and of the artists coming together again for a semi final exhibition next year in Lyon.
Marseille we salute you.