The New Zealand All Blacks will be playing France in Lyon, France early Sunday Morning (9 a.m., NZ Time).
At first, I was just mildly interested in this game, but then this article – French Rugby Capable of Anything – on the history of French rugby thuggery, even against the Americans after winning the 1924 Olympic Gold Medal in rugby, drew me in.
It might have been the repeated references to the French damaging the oppositions scrotums … I don’t know.
French rugby capable of anything
Friday November 10, 2006
By Wynne Gray
It was not so much the French but their fans who resorted to thuggery when the last Olympic gold medal for rugby was decided.
The French had a reputation then, in 1924, for violence in their sport and many international sides chose to avoid rugby matches in Paris.
But 82 years ago, a pick-up collection of American football and basketball athletes who were supposed, with Romania, to offer token resistance to the host nation, brought home gold in a monumental upset.
About 50,000 French fans were celebrating victory before they arrived at Colombes Stadium for the final. Their eventual anger boiled over as they beat up American supporters and aimed bottles and rocks towards the players. The Americans needed a gendarme escort to reach their changing rooms.
During that match, the Americans had been so aggressive they took the fight out of their opponents. But down the years the stories of passion and thuggery have been a familiar thread in French rugby.
New Zealanders who have taken up contracts in France and All Black sides have been victims.
There was the battle of Nantes in 1986 when Wayne Shelford needed his scrotum repaired and four years later when the French frontrow took the field with bloodied noses after headbutting themselves into a frenzied pre-match state in their changing room.
More recently there was the pain of the 1999 World Cup semifinal when the All Blacks failed to deal with an assorted range of hostility and sank to an inglorious defeat.
Counselled about retaliation, they had no answer to the punching, kicking and testicle-grabbing violence from the French.
“There is a lot of passion in French rugby, perhaps too much,” said Raphael Ibanez, the French captain that day and reserve hooker for Sunday’s test in Lyon against the All Blacks.
“You could also describe this passion as a craziness, a madness. I don’t know where this passion comes from but it’s one of the reasons rugby is so popular in the south of France, it allows us to express ourselves,” he said.
All Black hooker Anton Oliver was in that World Cup semi and has played the French in a number of subsequent tests.
“They are an emotional people and they have a larger catchment for getting themselves into a zone of arousal if you like,” he said.
“If they all get it right it really is an irresistible force. I remember when we played them at Marseille [a year after that World Cup] and they came at us and I thought, ‘Holy cow, what is going on here’.
“When we get it right we are an irresistible force like that as well.”
In his experience, Oliver thought there had been a reduction in the scale of French foul play. The globalisation of the game had introduced them to a variety of styles and players, the regionalism had been diluted with teams’ involvement in the Heineken Cup.
“No doubt our game has been influenced by playing the Africans and Australians a lot, we morph into something else and I think that is happening with rugby everywhere.
“I think the aggression in the game at the higher levels has moved on but talking to Carl Hoeft [playing for Castres] last night, I don’t think it has moved that far in local club rugby,” Oliver said.
“It is pretty rough and ready.”
Foreigners take some time to adjust to the way parochialism, which drives that rugby zeal, can manifest itself. The sight of coaches punching players or teammates butting each other is not on your average warmup schedule in New Zealand.
Rugby in the south of France replaced another sport called soule which used to pitch villages against each other in an attempt to send a heavy wooden or leather ball into a goal. Bloodshed was inevitable and widespread, the honour of the village was paramount.
Similar confrontational passion followed rugby when it overtook soule as the popular game in the south, when clubs like Agen, Brive, Beziers and Castres began.
Fighting for the honour of the village became win at all costs for the reputation of the local rugby club. The violence perhaps peaked in the 1970s but even this year Agen and Bourgoin had such a brawl, including spectators, that the national league president, the legendary Serge Blanco said: “I have seen pictures I never wanted to see again”.
Some of the worst French villains have hero status while there is sympathy for others such as former skipper Marc Cecillon who is on trial this week for murder after shooting his wife during a drunken rampage at a party.
A prop, Armand Vaquerin, who was a standover merchant in the 70s, later died in a Beziers bar when the tumblers got his number as he played Russian roulette.
Another of his henchmen from that era was the massive former paratrooper Gerard Cholley. Cholley took up rugby late but he was an army boxing champion and at 1.93m (6ft 4in) and 128kg (20st) in his playing days, used that brute force once to lay out four Scots in one game.
Alain Esteve was a puncher and known as the “Beast of Beziers” while enforcer Michel Palmie was banned for life in 1978 for nearly blinding an opponent although he later became a French Rugby Union official.
Those men remain icons, their dastardly deeds explained as honouring their club or country.
But current French coach Bernard Laporte has made discipline one of the main platforms in his side. He has suspended squad members including captain Fabien Pelous for foul play.
“I am trying to make them understand that these acts are inadmissible,” Laporte stressed. “If a player goes into the sinbin, his teammates have to fill in for him. I wanted him to realise that by being yellow-carded he simply punishes his own team.”
Discipline equals consistency for Laporte who also wants to broaden rugby’s appeal.
“We are talking about the future of our sport and if we want rugby to become more successful and more media friendly, we have to take a hard line on violence.’
By the way, learn about our rugby’s history at the Summer Olympics here. Did you know the American side had to basically fight it’s way into even being admitted into France (the French IOC “forgot” to send in their visas) and then again later to even get practice times on the rugby field? Worth reading!
The banter between the All Blacks and the French swings both ways though. France’s coach, Bernard Laporte, says New Zealand’s captain Richie McCaw “pushes the rules to the limits” and takes advantage of the referee’s missing calls. The All Blacks think Laporte is just trying to drum up early attention from fans and the referees before the match even kicks off.
Personally though, shouldn’t you play to the referee? If you have a referee that gives you long advantages or is extremely whistle happy, you adjust your play to this … just my two cents. If McCaw is smart enough to read that the referee isn’t calling things, well good on him.
And more on the All Blacks settling into France’s culture in preparation for the upcoming World Cup. Probably most interesting is just seeing how much effort and money is put into this. This weekend is a test run of where the ABs will be staying during the Cup.
And by the way, there is “unprecedented demand” for tickets to the 2007 World Cup.