The Mole has his favourites. Everybody does; I think that’s fair to say. Players you grew up watching on TV before you even had played a game of rugby, players who played in your position and you idolised as a kid, guys who played at your club or were in your school in the years ahead of you and went on to play for Ireland.
While the state of the construction industry and the miserly lending practices of banks means that the Mole’s Hall of Fame project is currently on hold, there’s always the internet to host virtual spout. Hooray! Unusually for the Mole, however, most of this chapter’s guff will be of the laudatory variety, rather than the vituperative, small-minded and spiteful jibes he aims at our hard-working, sober and hygienic rugby scribes.
We would thus like to welcome the first inductee to the Demented Mole’s Hall of Fame. But before we do, a word on attire.
The Mole is a sucker for the Yanks’ habit of awarding their champions a particularly coloured sportscoat, be it the green jacket at Augusta for the champion of the US Masters or the gold blazer that signifies election into the NFL Hall of Fame. As such, the Mole’s Hall of Famers will be dignified by a red blazer – it’s a Bob Mackie original.
So, the first inductee of the Demented Mole’s Hall of Fame: Laurent Cabannes.
Maybe every kid that grows up in a rugby household thinks that the players they saw in their formative years were particularly special. The more I think about it, that’s probably a very typical reaction: you’re so impressionable when you’re a kid, and it’s incredible to go to matches before you really know what’s going on. It’s a sensorial overload.
Still, I think that anybody would have loved to grow up watching the French team of the late 80s and early 90s. They played absolutely phenomenal rugby, had great names and were just about the coolest bunch of guys you could imagine.
‘The Bayonne Express’, Patrice Lagisquet. Jean-Baptiste Lafond, the ne plus ultra of unpredictability. Denis Charvet, the movie actor. Frack Mesnel, an architect and later the founder of the Eden Park clothing line. Hall of Famer Philippe Sella, whose thirteen year long international career took in 111 caps and 30 tries. The great Serge Blanco, of course. Didier Camberabero, the play-making genius from a line of great internationals. Pierre Berbizier, the little general at the base of the scrum.
Another charming facet of the team was the enormous dissimilarity between the forwards and the backs: never was the old adage about rugby teams being composed of piano players and piano movers more true.
The French pack of that era were a magnificent outfit, full of gnarly front rowers like Laurent Seigne, the paratrooper Christian Califano, police interrogator Louis Armary, Pascal Ondarts, the antiques dealer and bon viveur Laurent Benezet and the stone mason Jeff Tordo. Second rows Jean Condom and Olivier Roumat [hilariously, Uncle Fred Cogley would only ever refer to Condom as ‘the French second row’, in a nod to the contemporary ban on French second rows in the still-very-Catholic Ireland of the 1980s] were joined by the lumberjack and ex-shotputter Olivier Merle, who was both a big dirty bastard and an absolute lump of a man.
However, it was their backrow that was the real gem – Abdel Benazzi [1990-2001], Marc Cecillon [1988-95], Phillipe Benetton [1989-99] and Laurent Cabannes [1990-97]. What players! What a mix! Cecillon was a deeply flawed individual later convicted of murdering his wife, which rightly trivialises his exploits on the rugby pitch, but it’s inaccurate to talk about the others and omit him due to a sense of propriety.
Between the hard men of the pack and the artists of the backs, Cabannes was the renaissance man of the team. He was atypical of French forwards, in that he was not at all inspired by l’esprit de clocher, the sense of playing for one’s parish. In fact, he pretty much hated it: “If I could, I changed club every year, the ideal being to go abroad.”
Following the Rugby World Cup of 1995, he spent a year playing for Western Province in Capetown, but the bulk of his playing days were in the sky-blue and white jersey [and occasionally pink bowtie or black beret] of Racing Club de Paris. These were ‘le Showbiz’ years, when Franck Mesnel, Eric Blanc and Jean-Baptiste Lafond essentially had the time of their lives, taking the field on bicycles, sipping champagne at half-time, partying with Madonna and managing to take home a Bouclier de Brennus in between.
He arrived there from Pau in the wake of Robert Paparemborde, the 55-times capped French prop who was a star for the ages for Section Paloise. Cabannes had made his debut at the age of 17 at the Stade du Hameau, and was 20 when he moved to Racing in 1984. However, he didn’t make his international debut for France until November 1990, when he was 26 years old. In large part this was due to the horrific traffic accident he was involved in on St Stephens’ Day 1988, when a car in which he was a passenger plowed into a tree in the Bois des Boulognes. Cabannes suffered a number of broken bones and severe nerve damage to his right arm; it was eighteen months before he was able to even run again.
This was before professionalism, and while his club would have looked after him to some extent, it’s remarkable that he was able to return from such serious injury to establish himself in the French team for the next seven years. In that period [from 1990-1997] he was to play in 49 test matches, starting 47 of them.
His performances in these games were, to any fan of rugby, a real joy to behold. He played the game both with reckless abandon and a real sense of skill; he had the true rugbyman’s knowledge of where to be at the right time, and he had the athleticism to make it there.
The modern day notion of an openside is that of a groundhog, a guy constantly jackaling over the ball. Heinrich Brussow is probably the most one-dimensional exponent of the position at the moment, in that he is largely defined by his work at the breakdown, while David Pocock and Sam Warburton bring a little more to the game with ball in hand and Richie McCaw is simply a phenomenal all-rounder.
Cabannes wasn’t a truffle-hound, spending his afternoons with his nose in the turf; instead, he was described as “Un joueur à la jambe un peu trop leste pour se cantonner aux ébats des arracheurs de cuirs” which translates roughly as “a player a little too quick on his feet to be dragged into the antics of the furniture movers”. He was a link-man, a guy who was there to receive a pass or a pop or to throw himself on a spilled ball, a guy who was as confident in the broken field as he was at the breakdown.
The French have always produced atypical backrowers, from Jean-Pierre Rives to Cabannes to Olivier Magne to Imanol Harinordoquy – players who don’t necessarily fit in the prescribed Anglo-Saxon definition of positions. While Cabannes was a great flanker, he wasn’t the quintessential openside in the manner of a Fergus Slattery, Peter Winterbottom or Josh Kronfeld; he didn’t fit the overused dictum of a ‘six-and-a-half’ either. If anything, he was half openside, half fullback – a guy who had a lot of license, who could run with the backs and tackle with the forwards.
Still, for all his free-spiritedness, Cabannes was a player who played for his teammates. He didn’t score a lot of tries in his career, but he gave a lot of scoring passes. As much as he played an open game, he also recognised the value of structure:
“We could have been world champions; Pierre Berbizier had managed to rub out that indiscipline had cost us a quarter in 1991. Then there was a ramp-up under that regime which had seen us victorious in the tour in Argentina in 1992 and to South Africa in 1993, before the summit of the two tests won in New Zealand in 1994.
All of this showed that we were ready in 1995, until the semi-final, those conditions and those Dante-esque political decisions as well. We learned later that if the match was postponed, South Africans would have lost due to the tournament rules.”
Cabannes ended his career at in England, playing in teams full of internationals in the years after the game had gone open. First it was Harlequins for the 1997-98 season and then, at the ripe old age of 35, he turned out for Richmond alongside Ben Clarke for a few games to pad out his record and his bank account.
Professional players, especially those who are at the elderly end of the spectrum and were kids in the days before there was a pro game – and thus might have assumed that they’d have to hold down jobs as well as play at a serious level – have a habit of sometimes romanticising the allure of the amateur era. It wasn’t all having pints with your opponents and acting the mickey on tour … you had to get up and work a job that you were in no way fully committed to, and weren’t ever really going to make any headway in.
The Mole remembers Mike Teague, the Gloucester blindside and hero of the 1989 Lions tour, talking matter-of-factly about how he couldn’t earn a living if he broke his arm playing rugby. He was a builder, and he simply couldn’t work with a broken arm. The grass is always greener on the other side of the wall. An awful lot of amateurs would have walked over glass if they could have been paid to play rugby, and now it seems that some professional players don’t necessarily appreciate the positives of doing something you’re deeply passionate about for a very handsome wage.
While Cabannes wasn’t quite in Teague’s situation – he was a champagne merchant, which is absolutely priceless – he was delighted to become a professional rugby player, to earn his living doing what he loved to do.
“I think I would have worked better in the British system – less emotional, less family. After a rugby match, the English did not lose their heads. This is the good side of the clubs here: [they recognise that] it is just a recreational game. After the game, in France, we either talk too seriously, or we talk too stupidly, and then it gets boring.”
And Cabannes didn’t do boring.