Wartime tunnels and French students with a love of rugby combined for a joyful exchange of both the language and the game in Wellington last month.
St Catherine’s and St Patrick’s Colleges, Kilbirnie, hosted students from the Lyc√¢ÀÜ≈°√É¬†e Robespierre in Arras, which holds the secondary school title for boys’ rugby in France.
The link was established when a St Catherine’s student, Julia Atkins, went to Lyc√¢ÀÜ≈°√É¬†e Robespierre on exchange three years ago. She played rugby which is unusual for girls in France. Her coach’s son then spent three months in Wellington at St Patrick’s College last year.
Meanwhile an exploration of some 20 kilometres of tunnels in the shape of New Zealand dug under Arras during World War I revealed bunkers or quarries with names like Wellington, Russell and Christchurch and, in the Wellington quarry, the name and number of New Zealand soldier, Patrick Shannahan.
The city is renovating the bunker and will open it to the public in 2008.
The students at Lyc√¢ÀÜ≈°√É¬†e Robespierre decided last November to come to Wellington to see the place they had come to know as a World War 1 bunker, and to pay homage to New Zealand soldiers who had helped to free their town. Through Fr Paul Shannahan SM who is a relative, they contacted the 90 year-old nephew of Patrick Shannahan who has the same name and lives in Masterton.
Their visit to Patrick Shannahan towards the end of their fortnight in New Zealand last month was a highlight.
The students played rugby against St Catherine’s and St Patrick’s, Rongotai College, Bishop Viard College in Porirua, St Mary’s in Thorndon and two Wairarapa schools.
They conversed in French and made lasting connections across the world.
For Fanny Deplanque and Pierre-Alban Vilain, the trip has been the fulfilment of a dream to play rugby against ‘the best in the world’. Rugby ranks with other school subjects at Lyc√¢ÀÜ≈°√É¬†e Robespierre and students spend three hours a week ‘studying’ the game.
Both have made strong friendships with their billets and rugby rivals and will take back to France memories of experiencing Māori culture and seeing unusual topographical features in the geysers of Rotorua. St Catherine’s and St Patrick’s now have an invitation to visit Arras, and have already started putting things in place for a trip in 2007-2008.