The Two Faces of French Rugby

Armand Vaquerin_Beziers

Armand Vaquerin raises the Bouclier de Brennus for A.S. Beziers.

How can you avoid generalities when it comes to discussing culture? A culture is by definition shared. The more widespread its reach, the more people who partake in it, the less possible it is to balance the clarity of the specific against the scope of a less definable but more important gestalt.

The French have the most vibrant, the most storied and most glorious rugby culture in the world, bar none. It is an amazing union, the moreso because it operates outside the anglophone sphere that dominates the game.  The Fédération Francais de Rugby [FFR]  encompasses by far the largest number of registered rugby players of any participating nation in the sport. There are well over half-a-million registered players in France [542,242 by World Rugby’s 2016 census], exceeding the next largest [England’s 382, 154], by more than 160,000.

Player numbers can be measured; culture can’t. It’s not a quantity, but a series of qualities that one can try and identify. 

Very Dashing. Very … Audacious

Mesnel_Racing

Franc Mesnel in classic Racing Club style, complete with pink bowtie. It’s a great look, but it doesn’t capture the essence of French rugby.

In bemoaning the death of French rugby, commentators are explicitly associating the national style with an off-the-cuff approach to back play that belongs to the backline of the 1980s, one of the greatest septets assembled in the history of international rugby: Philippe Sella [111 caps/30 tries, 1982-95], Serge Blanco [93 caps/38 tries, 1980-91], Pierre Berbizier [56 caps/7 tries, 1981-91], Franck Mesnel [56 caps/8 tries, 1986-95], Patrice Lagisquet [46 caps/20 tries, 1983-91], Didier Camberabero [36 caps/12 tries, 1982-91], and Jean-Baptiste Lafond [36 caps/14 tries, 1983-93].

It quite staggered The Mole when, in researching this article, I found that this backline – a combination I could have sworn I’d seen in action at least half a dozen times – never started a match together for France.

Strangers In The Night, Exchanging Passes

During Australia’s 1989 November tour, Jacques Fouroux almost had it but gave a test debut to Stephane Weller on the right wing; Lafond had been in the team in the 1989 Six Nations and was back in it for the 1990 Six Nations, so it probably goes down as the closest we ever got to seeing that dream backline. Incidentally, France got whipped and didn’t score a try. I’ll put that all down to Weller.

Jean Baptiste Lafond_France

Jean Baptiste Lafond: correct black boots/white laces combo.

In the June 1990 tour of Australia, six of the seven took the pitch against Australia in Sydney and won 28-19, largely due to a Didier Camberabero full-house that included no fewer than three drop-goals. Pierre Berbizier was absent, replaced in the side by a debuting Aubin Hueber at scrum-half. Hueber played 23 games for his only country over the course of a decade and only lost four of them [against New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and England]; he was no dummy, but he was no Berbizier either.

An outstanding team togged out to play [and only narrowly beat] Canada in a Rugby World Cup Pool 4 fixture on home ground in Agen in October 1991, but a 22 year old Fabien Galthie had taken over from the 33 year old Pierre Berbizier at scrum-half, and 24 year old Philippe Saint-Andre had displaced The Bayonne Express, Patrice Lagisquet, on the wing; in fact Lagisquet had played what turned out to be his last test nine days earlier against Romania in Béziers, when injury saw him replaced by Lafond.

La Règle du Jeu

France were either joint or outright winners of the championship six times during the 1980s: outright winners in 1981, 1987 [completing the Grand Slam in both years] and 1989, and joint winners in 1983 [with Ireland], 1986 [with Scotland] and 1988 [with Wales]. Assessing points differential to separate teams tied at the top of the table, they would have finished first in 1983 and 1986, and second in 1988.

In the seven championships between 1983 and 1989 [inclusive] they finished in the top two every year. That level of success over an extended period can’t be maintained by a small group of players: injuries, loss of form and outside events bring their influence to bear.

So, alongside that gilded septet, the dispatches should mention shorter-term luminaries like centre Didier Codorniou [31 caps/5 tries, 1979-86], ‘The Little Prince’ of Narbonne, who won 19 caps in five Five Nations tournaments and the Grand Slam in 1981; the winger Patrick Esteve [25 caps/12 tries, 1982-87], who scored in every game of the 1983 Five Nations and only missed selection for two tournament games from 1983-86; Eric Bonneval [18 caps/8 tries 1984-88], father to current professionals Arthur and Hugo, who scored five tries in four games in the 1987 edition of the tournament, including a hat-trick against Scotland; Jean-Patrick Lescarboura, the rangy and enigmatic Dax outhalf who won 28 caps between 1982-90 and still holds the French record for international drop-goals; and centre Denis Charvet [23 caps/6 tries, 1986-91], a luxurious sometime partner to both Philippe Sella and Franck Mesnel on occasion.

Divers - Archive archives - Rugby

A classic Richard Dourthe pose, appealing against the injustices the world visited on him. Dourthe was a thin-haired, angular and fiery-tempered centre whose entire career was a complicated fight to emerge from – and simultaneous tribute to – the reputational shadow of his father Claude, who remains the youngest French international of all time. Dourthe fils had a terrible temper and a proclivity towards cheapshots and dirty play when things went against him … but he was also tough, very competitive and skilful.

A tranche of excellent backs filled the jerseys when the septet began their filter out of the quinze: the saturnine Jean-Luc Sadourny for Blanco at fullback, with the aforementioned Saint-André for Lagisquet on one wing and Emile N’tamack [nominally a wing, although he also played in the centres and at fullback] for Lafond on the other. Nobody displaced the great Sella until he retired from the international game after the 1995 Rugby World Cup; he was just too good and too complete a player to do without.

The hard-nosed Thierry Lacroix switched between Nos 10 and 12 for much of his career, as did the suave Christophe ‘Titou’ Lamaison, whose outstanding feats in the RWC99 semi-final are extolled by the grand old man of English sportswriting, Simon Barnes, in this fine little paean to the beauty of unpredictability. Fabien Galthie took over from Pierre Berbizier and played in four World Cups. These players were the pick of the backlines that took France around the corner in the 1990s into the professional era.

And just like their predecessors Codorniou and Bonneval, there were outstanding players who gilded the frame: the impish Thomas Castaignede, who played 54 tests in 11 seasons over 13 years [missing 2001 and 2004 entirely] at outhalf, fullback and centre. Philippe Bernat-Salles, a prototypical playboy rugby player whose outrageously louche style disguised a keen eye for the tryline … and surprising longevity for a bantamweight. Clear-eyed Sebastien Viars shredded Ireland in 1992 in Parc Des Princes for 24 points [two four-point tries, five conversions and two long-range penalties] as a 20 year old but bizarrely was never capped again after his 26th birthday.

It’s these players, backs and three-quarters, that are referenced again and again as emblematic of French rugby: not just a great French team, or even a great era, but French rugby as a whole. Occasionally loose forwards like Laurent Cabannes and Olivier Magne – loose-limbed artists, the two of them – make it into the credits, but the English translation of l’Histoire du Rugby Francaise that we’ve all been sold only tells half a story, omitting the rich idiomatic language, half the characters and the matter-of-fact approach to bloodshed and villainy that is essential to understanding the nature of the game in France.

Dirt, Flint and Blood

It wasn’t the advent of television that changed French rugby; the game was still very violent when it was first broadcast. It was the development of more extensive camerawork, more knowledgable and sure-footed direction, and editing that emphasised repetition and replays – all part of the surge of coverage that took place in European sports in the 1990s – that began the process in earnest. The excesses of violence that typified rugby throughout the 1960s and 70s, particularly in France and Wales, had lessened somewhat, but they were still present and incorrect in the 1980s. Attitudes were changing, but not particularly quickly; rugby players and aficionados were happy to accept the occasional tumult of violence as part of the game. However, now these games, with their occasional punch-ups, off-the-ball incidents and cheapshots, were being broadcast in lurid detail to a relatively wide television audience. This wider audience share would by its nature include those who might very well be casual viewers seeing a game for the first time. Thus there was a stronger likelihood that they were neither aware of nor inured to the brutality that was still quite widespread at all levels of the game.

And while it may not be a popular opinion to hold, it’s The Mole’s belief that this abnegation of physical violence – foul play that happened outside the laws of the game – took away from the French style, from the esprit of the game as it was played in the heartlands of the sport. Intimidation, aggression, irascibility, toughness, durability, courage: these traits are as much a part of the game in France as the élan and jouer jouer style.

Rugby was first and foremost about village pride; the pride of the local in the face of competition from strangers. L’esprit de cloche is such an elegant-sounding phrase to Anglophone ears that its practical ramifications, how it manifested itself over a century of weekends on rugby pitches across southern France, aren’t faithfully represented. It’s a particularly euphonic little trail of pleasant sounds, even when divorced from its meaning: “the spirit of the clock-tower”. How quaint! How brass band and village cricket green! How ready for idealisation amongst willing foreigners … how euphemistic. The sub rosa grudge-bearing, the nurturing of perceived slights, the pride in parochial strength being brought to bear against rivals from neighbouring villages – that’s the ethos of rugby in France.

Walter Spanghero_Sepia

Walter Spanghero, the hardest man Colin Meads ever played against. The fact that Jean-Pierre Rives – a great player in his own right – has been characterised as emblematic of French forwards is utterly misrepresentative. Rives was brave and talented, but his principles and opinions were those of classic corinthian, and he was idealised by English-speaking rugby fans. Spanghero was the frightening reality of French rugby in the 1960s and 70s: the son of an Italian immigrant stonemason, he debuted for Les Bleus at 20 years old and won 51 caps at lock, flanker and No8 for France between 1964-73. Spanghero was not specifically renowned as a dirty player – in the same way that Gerard Cholley was, for example – but everyone back then was dirty by today’s standards. Spanghero’s reputation came from his frightening intensity, his competitive edge and his abilities as a player: “He was a fair player who went for the ball all the time, spring-heeled on the jump and tough as teak,” said Meads.

That level of intimidation – the suspicion, the knowledge that you could well be kicked in the head if you were trapped on the wrong side, or rabbit-punched when you turned after the ball following a lineout, or eye-gouged when pinned on the ground – those were the fears that motivated big surges of adrenaline, and prompted the edginess that meant games erupted frequently. That was the emotional pitch of the game. There existed a much wider scope of what was acceptable … because it was a fight. The cheapshot, the headbutt, the fourchette: they were still frowned upon, but they weren’t outside expected norms as they are today.

The primary difference was that the game had not evolved along the same societal strata in France as it had in England. In England, rugby was the game of the upper middle classes, the quintessential “hooligan’s game played by gentlemen”: in France, it wasn’t regarded as either for hooligans, for gentlemen, or a game. It was a contest under sporting laws, village against village, and was held in that regard. The positives were there – pace, athleticism, practised skill – but they were there as a means to an end, not an adornment. “Play up, play up and play the game”? Not if you don’t want to get your nose spread across your face and your fucking head kicked in. The important element of the game in France was the contest, and the contest was about the sense of pride.

Violence existed in the game, but outside the laws of the game; the game was bigger than its laws, and violence was de facto, not de jure.

Whitewash

It says something about the quality of that great backline of the late 1980s and early 1990s that those prominent Anglophone journalists who are old enough to have witnessed the French teams of the 1970s have essentially forgotten that the character of the national side owed as much to the immense size and physical brutality of its forwards as it did to the grace and refinement of its backs.

And the manner in which the historical nature of French rugby is portrayed in Ireland and Britain every Six Nations season by these commentators almost traduces its past: the great forwards of the 1960s and 1970s, the hard men of the southern towns and villages, are written out of history. A false image of French rugby is peddled: all top-of-the-ground, flamboyant and spritzy, with the earthy, ruthless qualities expunged. So the minute-to-minute play of contemporary French test sides is compared to a distillation of the highlights of a decade of backplay and found wanting. 

Gallion, Paparemborde, Paco, Cholley_France

Jerome Gallion strikes a pose at scrumhalf; Robert Paparemborde [TH], Alain Paco [H] and Gerard Cholley [LH] get down to business.

The current style of the Top14 – the prevalence of forward play, the reliance placed on physically huge men in the pack – is seen as a betrayal of the romantic nature of French rugby. Bullshit. It has always been there. It has always been a massive part of the character of the game in France. Physical brutality is as much a part of French rugby as invention and flair. 

 

French rugby fans have long responded to the proving-ground nature of these town vs town clashes, and still do: the Top 14 is by far the most well-attended league in the rugby world. There has always been room for anti-heroes in the French pantheon, the bigger and badder the better.

The notorious Castres prop Gerard Cholley [193cm, 114kg], Alain Esteve – the infamous ‘Beast of Beziers’, a giant at 202cm/6’8″ and 113kg/17st 12lbs during his test peak from 1971-75 – and Michel Palmié [197cm/6’6″, 118kg/18st 8lbs], Esteve’s partner in the A.S. Bezier and French second rows, were enormous, violent men who viewed rugby more as a physical contest than as a sporting pastime.

Michel Palmié_France

Michel Palmié’s lugubrious mien hid a ferocious appetite for confrontation.

Palmie’s sad clown face and enormous broken nose gave him the air of a club-house character rather than a rugby player, but he was one of the most callous and nasty players of a tough and dirty era. Given that they were playing 40-45 years ago – almost half a century ago – the sheer physical size of Cholley and Esteve was staggering: Ray McLoughlin, then first choice loosehead for Ireland and the Lions, weighed about 95kg [15st]; the legendary Willie-John McBride was 191cm [6’3″] tall. Cholley and Esteve – and Jean-Pierre Bastiat, a 199cm/6’6″, 109kg/17st 2lb No8 from U.S. Dax, who won 32 caps between 1969-78 – dwarfed their opponents. They were the biggest animals in their town or village, born and brought up in the period immediately following World War II, who found a natural home for their strength and rough temperament on the rugby pitches of Landes and Languedoc.

 

Elie Cester, Esteve & Spanghero

The late Elie Cester [32 French caps, 1966-74], Alain Esteve and Walter Spanghero enjoy a beer and a smoke post-match. I don’t know who the alickadoo is, but what a classic of the genre: great hair, polo-neck under the blazer, tartan blanket on his lap and delighted to be there.

Like the late All Black Jerry Collins replied when asked about the neighbourhood he grew up in, “If it wasn’t tough, I would have made it tough.” Cholley, Esteve, Palmié, Elie Cester of Le Toulouse Olympique Employés Club [TOEC], Jean-Francois Imbernon of Perpignan and the legendary Armand Vaquerin, who won ten Boucliers with A.S. Bezier between 1971 and 1984, laid down the physical markers for French rugby, both in their domestic game and in the international arena. Some of them  were characterised as enforcers, rather than great players: they brought a Luca Brasi-esque menace to the field, and to compete with them you had to meet that brutality with physical toughness, an unstinting competitive nature, and more ability as a player.

Greats like Spanghero, Jean-Claude Skrela and Robert Paparemborde [“the greatest tight-head prop of the modern era … massively strong and powerful, incredibly hard and immovable,” according to Fran Cotton] matched that violence with intensity of purpose and the compulsion for victory. They could stay the course, go toe-to-toe with the brutes, fight them at their own game, outlast them and then beat them by virtue of being better players. If that sounds like hero-worship, it’s because these men were heroes. They were local men who came up through a hard school and brought that hardness and ferocity to fields across Ireland, Britain, Italy, Romania, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, becoming giants of the international game. That’s the heritage passed down to forwards like Pascal Ondarts, Daniel Dubroca, Laurent Rodriguez, Olivier Roumat, Fabien Pelous, William Servat, Jean-Baptiste Poux and Guilhem Guirado.

Noves_Villepreux_Skrela

The Toulouse intelligentsia of Jean-Claude Skrela, Pierre Villepreux and Guy Noves in conference during their playing days. French rugby is renowned for its emotional content rather than its rational approach, but the country has produced players with a holistic understanding of the game who have gone on to become extremely influential coaches. Skrela, the son of Polish refugees, won Grand Slams for France as both a player and a coach. Villepreux oversaw the return of the Bouclier to Toulouse in 1985 after a gap of some 38 years, with a ‘total rugby’ approach, and Noves turned them into a team that dominated European rugby, winning nine Boucliers and four European Cups in a nineteen year stretch.

Balance In All Things

That is the duality of French rugby as played: moments of grace counterposed against a background of brutality.

To excise the efforts of the great forwards from the story, and to take a determinedly non-contextual view of the violence that was an adjunct to the sport as a contest in the country during the 1960s and 1970s, is to purposely misrepresent the nature of the game in France. There’s a hagiographic approach to a certain part of rugby that doesn’t pay due respect to elements that are more intrinsic to its position in French sporting and social culture.

‘Le Grand Ferré’, Benoit Dauga, prop Jean Iracabal, “L’homme Qui Ne Recule Jamais” – ‘The Man Who Never Went Backwards’ – and ‘Monsieur Rugby’, Jean Prat … these forwards were the lifeblood of the game and hold as important a place in French rugby history as Roland Bertranne or the Boniface brothers.  

6 thoughts on “The Two Faces of French Rugby

  1. Thank you Mr Mole, an excellent read and it brings back the lost days past. I understood it to be “le clocher de ville” i.e the bell of the town but I am happy to stand corrected. In the days of protein shakes and training “extras” we have perhaps lost the should of the game.

    France appear to still have the big men, but that essential hardness bred in south west France seems to have gone awol. Let us hope they can discover it again and bring back le biff.

  2. Incidentally, the spirit of the clock tower was a concept, if not a literal phrase, associated with cockfighting in England up until it was banned (and even for a few decades afterwards).

  3. This is the best rugby article I have read in a very long time. Superbly researched and written. The Mole is consistently informed and informative. I have long enjoyed your articles, and this is fantastic contribution to the catalogue

  4. Great article and very true. French rugby has 2 faces and it’s hard to understand why they are sometimes good and sometimes so bad. It’s a question of spirit or strengh.
    Taking French teams to England and welcoming English teams in France lways make the games very tough. Even at young ages ! Perhaps because of history !
    https://www.comeonsport.com/teams-tours/rugby/

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