As a lifelong Castleford Tigers fan, the opportunity to visit Perpignan to watch my team do battle against the Catalans Dragons has been something I'd wanted to do ever since the French side joined Super League in 2006. After years of saying I would visit the south of France, I - along with my two friends (yes journalists can also have friends) - finally decided to take the plunge this season. With the Tigers playing the Dragons in late June, the weather promised much and, despite Castleford being inconsistent in 2018, I and over a thousand other Tigers fans, were in a buoyant mood following the previous week's victory over Wigan.


Whilst most travelling supporters tend to stay at the Spanish seaside resort of Lloret de Mar, my two friends and I chose to spend two nights in Perpignan itself, just to get the feel of the city and sample the traditional French cuisine, atmosphere and nightlife. Uniquely in France, Rugby League takes precedent over Union - the Dragons play in the top flight of the 13-man game, whilst Perpignan's union side only earned promotion to France's Top 14 league this season after years of languishing in its second division.

The emphasis on league was apparent from the moment we walked past the Castilet - the red-brick town gate now abandoned by its ramparts. A blackboard outside one of Perpignan's many bars had the words "welcome Tigers to Perpignan" alongside quite an impressive chalk drawing of a tiger.

Though this was a day before the game, the excitement was already there; a magnificent French city with superb restaurants and a few niche bars, no previous pre-match experience could even come close.

Later on that night, my friends and I circled much of the Spanish-inspired city - after all, Perpignan was part of Spain until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 - and found a hugely contrasting culture to that present in Britain.

Children no older than 11 or 12 were walking around the city on their own without a care in the world. Though there was still the odd beggar or two - inevitable in any city - there was no sign of trouble or any sign of anyone wanting to cause trouble, even on a Friday night.

In fact, I was more at ease in a foreign city after spending barely a day there then I have been when travelling round Leeds city centre - a city where I lived for three years.

The people were accommodating and welcoming and most, if not all, were impressed by my attempts to speak French - even if sometimes this only extended as far as "je ne comprends pas" (I don't understand).

People often get angered at foreigners' lack of ability or desire to speak English when in the UK, but then the same critics do exactly the same when travelling to another country. Other countries appreciate attempts to learn their own language and, understandably, the ability to converse - albeit in a broken manner - made my friends and I feel more at home too, enhancing our experience even further.

Game day

If the first day in Perpignan was superb, then the second was sensational. As soon as my two friends and I walked into the square next to the Castilet at 11 in the morning, we were greeted by a raucous chorus from Castleford fans singing the traditional songs and enjoying a drink in the brilliant French sunshine.

Beer was flowing, but again, there was no sign of trouble even when policemen came through a herd of Tigers fans on motorbikes. The atmosphere and general buzz was nothing like I'd ever felt before a game; it's actually difficult to describe without being there.

Then came the 4 PM call for the majority of those present to depart on the same buses which had brought them into France. The silence was eerie; ten minutes previous the square had been awash with black and orange engaging in banter and singsong, now all focus turned to, arguably, the main event: the fixture itself. My friends and I hopped on a service bus and, to our surprise, there was no fee for home or away fans on game day. Again, just another little quirk made me appreciate the culture even more.

Once we had stepped off of one of France's public buses - an efficient service which puts the likes of Arriva to shame - we once more met up with the sea of fans bounding down the Avenue de l'aérodrome towards the Stade Gilbert Brutus; expectation was in the air. Castleford, sitting in fourth, had the chance to leapfrog Warrington into third, and, after a thrilling 19-18 victory over Wigan the week before, would have fancied their chances.

But, Castleford were outclassed by a Catalans side that climbed into the top eight for the first time this season with a 44-16 thrashing. Inevitably, such a result dampened the Castleford fans' spirits - especially as the Dragons held a 30-10 lead by half-time.

It seemed ridiculous that Tigers fans had paid out hundreds of pounds - even thousands - to watch their team be annihilated.

The result was gutting, but let's take nothing away from the fact that I had two of the best days of my life in Perpignan. It was the best pre-match buildup I had ever experienced and I would do it all again tomorrow if I could. The defeat left a bitter taste in my mouth - as I expect it did for all Castleford fans - but the memories I made from those two days meant that the result paled into insignificance.