One of the most remarkable examples of humanity was born in Corsica in 1769, supported the French Revolution and the formation of the Republic with its ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Napoleon Bonaparte was a rare combination of will, intellect and physical vigour who reorganised France itself to supply the men and money needed for great wars. Le Petit Caporal ruled France as Emperor for ten years from 1804 and was briefly reinstalled in 1815 before being deposed again.
Le Petit Caporal
Jacques Fouroux was born in Auch, 75 kms west of Toulouse, in 1947, the year that the French national team was readmitted to the Five Nations. He made his senior debut for US Cognac at 18 in 1965, the year they won the Challenge Yves du Manoir. That competition was launched in 1931 by Racing Club de France after the French national team had been expelled from the Five Nations competition following accusations of professionalism in the French league as well as on-field violence and poor organisation. French rugby had become very forward orientated and the organizers of the YdM were very keen to ensure that teams had an attacking style of play. The name of the competition has gone down in the history of French rugby as the epitome of le beau jeu (the beautiful game) and fair play.
The 5ft 3 inch Fouroux was first capped in 1972 against Ireland while playing for La Voulte, a small club in the Ardeche on the banks of the Rhone. La Voulte, with a town population of 5,000, had won the Bouclier du Brennus in 1970, thanks mainly to the Camberabero brothers Guy and Lillian. Fouroux joined the season after and spent five years there before moving home to Auch where he finished his club career. He earned 27 caps for France and was captain 23 times, leading Les Bleus to only their second Grand Slam in 1977.
That Grand Slam was won by France with a pack of mean hombres who scored 58 points and conceded 21. La Bande a Fouroux contained Cholley, Paparemborde, Palmie and Imbernon in the front five, you can read more here from Bobby Windsor’s “in my day” yarns. Jacques Fouroux was given the nickname “the little Corporal” – the same as Napoleon Bonaparte – and was instrumental in deciding the style of the team even though Desclaux was the coach. Rives, a member of the 1977 back row alongside Skrela, said of Fouroux: “He was a whirlwind – so much energy in a human being, it was incredible to see.”
Fouroux wouldn’t have to wait long to assume full control and at 33 was appointed to succeed Desclaux as coach of France in 1981. He would spend nearly a decade in charge, winning six Five Nations titles and two Grand Slams while also reaching the final of the 1987 RWC. During the 1980s France’s successes were based around their massive pack, a hallmark of Fouroux’s selection policy, that provided ball for backs like Blanco, Sella, Mesnel and Didier Camberabero.
Qui ne saute pas n’est pas toulous-ang!
The days of a small town club like La Voulte winning le Bouclier were over by the 90s and if the 70s and the first half of the 80s belonged to Beziers, the next decade and a half was that of Toulouse. The rugby philosophy employed by Toulouse was that of Pierre Villepreux and Jean-Claude Skrela. Skrela played in the 1977 Grand Slam team with Fouroux and was appointed as national coach in 1995. Villepreux joined him as an assistant and France won back to back Grand Slams in 1996 and 1997. Skrela’s team reached the final of RWC 99 but couldn’t replicate their performance level from the semi-final and were beaten well by Australia.
The rugby of Skrela and Villepreux is perhaps what people most associate with a French style. I went down to watch them train in Trinity before their quarter final against Argentina in 1999. Tony Smeeth, long time director of rugby at Trinity, was on the sideline with notebook and had arranged someone to record the technical details of what the French did that Ireland couldn’t. Instead, he got to watch them play tip – backs versus forwards – and Christophe Lamaison charm the crowd before they headed in. They’d great tracksuits and an insouciance the Irish love from a French team.That anecdote belies the depth of understanding Skrela brought to the role. I watched an Ireland u21 game beside Skrela a few years after he had resigned as national team coach; it was a memorable experience as the great back row-turned-coach instructed France’s left wing through the half with a comprehensive feel for the game’s rhythm, flow and provision of space.
Bernie Le Fou
Toulouse has managed to keep something of a romantic air about the club, due in large part to the philosophy of Skrela and Villepreux, but its success is that of a pragmatic, wealthy club. The city is home to Airbus and French rugby has long had money sloshing around it. The introduction of professionalism formalised that and radio impresario Max Guazzini injected cash into Stade Francais, a venerable Parisian club that had been in the doldrums for decades. Racing Club had always had a touch of le Showbiz about them but Guazzini introduced a different level of razzmatazz as Stade Francais leapt through the divisions to become champions of France.
They were coached on their ascent by Bernard Laporte, another former scrum half and also an intense and capable individual. Laporte recognised the need for a strong pack and constantly emphasised discipline in an effort to counter a strong English team. He was in charge of France from after the 1999 RWC to the 2007 RWC which France hosted and finished fourth in.
His teams won Grand Slams in 2002 and 2004 as well as finishing top of the championship in 2006 and 2007. He left the role after eight years to become a Secretary of State in Sarkozy’s government and promote the produce of his vineyard.
Marc Lievremont was appointed by Bernard Lapasset in one of his last acts before he left the FFR for the IRB. French rugby was, and still is, finding the balance between the clubs and the national interest and Serge Blanco of the LNR wasn’t impressed about not being consulted.
Lievremont himself seemed a bit surprised by his own appointment and was in contrast to the national figure of Laporte, a man from the provinces. “I also understand that some people are disappointed, legitimately or not, but I consider myself to be a man with convictions surrounding both the sport and on the human front. I have not asked for anything from anyone. I respect all the coaches who were viable candidates for the post, but it is not for me to justify what has happened.“
Wales and Ireland completed Grand Slams in 2008 and 2009 before France’s clean sweep in 2010 which came in the aftermath of a drawn test series in NZ in 2009. Lievremont picked a wide assortment of players and his team lost to Tonga in RWC11 before reaching the final by which stage the players appeared to have mutinied and had taken over the running of their team.
Lievremont was not a textbook coach but he brought a good squad to that tournament and they produced their best performance in the biggest game, which they deserved to win. He was quintessentially French and was succeeded by the Anglophile, Phillipe St Andre.
St Andre’s appointment came with some vocal kvetching from Boudjellal and Bouscatel of Toulouse about how the process was handled. Pierre Camou, the Basque banker, was the kingmaker from the FFR who succeeded Lapasset and appointed St Andre. He was responsible for the construction of the French national training base and Marcoussis and is the driving force behind the construction of the Federation’s own stadium which will allows them collect all the match days revenues instead of leasing the Stade de France.
France’s Six Nations record under St Andre was ignominious as Les Bleus languished in the bottom half of the table each season. His reign culminated in capitulation in Cardiff against a NZ team that looked like they were going through a training run rather than playing a test match. While the national team were disintegrating, the club game had never been more wealthier and various TV deals helped the Top 14 become the prime destination for travelling rugby players.
“For all his qualities and his faults, he marked his generation as player and coach.“
A skinny winger made his debut when Fouroux’s Grand Slam team beat NZ in Toulouse in 1977 during their November tour. Guy Noves was born in 1954, only seven years after Fouroux, as part of France’s post-war baby boom generation and the quote about that generation is from Jo Maso upon Fouroux’s death. Guy Noves takes charge of France thirty five years after his one time teammate, le Petit Caporal, was appointed to the same role. He is associated exclusively with Toulouse, the club of Skrela and Villepreux with whom he enjoyed much success both at home and abroad.
That is a departure from traditional French rugby which is still informed by l’espirit des cloches (“the spirit of the church bells”). When a French team is within earshot of their parish bells they are bound to play with an intensity not found on their travels. Rugby in France is a rural game, most popular in the south-west of the country where it is physical and often played on far firmer pitches than those found on the islands of Ireland and Britain.
Leaving the village and flourishing further afield often requires the drive and ambition of a powerful character who can galvanise his teammates. Fouroux was the force of nature that set the course of French rugby for decades with big, physical forwards and dominant, decisive scrumhalves. Dubroca and Berbizier’s teams were prone to violent meltdown against their sturdy English opposition and were succeeded by the Toulouse philosophy. Laporte, a scrum half like Fouroux and Berbizier, exhorted discipline and picked a big pack while Lievremont’s favoured powerful second rows and back rows that offered a lineout presence.
Even in death, Bonaparte had a great influence on French life. Napoleonic Law extended the right to own property and an acceleration towards the end of feudalism. Private ownership of the clubs and their ability to negotiate commercial deals has a growing impact on the national team. Fouroux codified his own formula for success with a dominant, physical pack, a pragmatic game plan and the selection of some exhilarating backs. Noves is the last of that generation to take charge of France, who have been discounted as never before in my memory, and this championship will serve some indication about whether that private ownership has compromised one of Europe’s great national powers.