Rugby season not the same without that sprinkling of French flair
Sight of the old enemy England in Paris should produce required response this afternoon
France’s coach Philippe Saint Andre: under pressure as his side begin their Six Nations campaing at home to England.
What has happened to Le Crunch?
There was a time when the annual Six Nations fixture between England and France topped the bill of winter rugby fare. The other matches, featuring the various Celtic nations were all very well but this was the old stuff: empire against empire, culture against culture, blue versus white. If you watched those games on the BBC, the message to the Celtic nations was very clear: tally ho, chaps: clear the stage . . . go back to your valleys, your highlands and four green fields. There’s a rugby match to be played here.
“Jeez, these guys hate each other,” marvelled David Kirk, the former New Zealand captain, during a television commentary of the 1991 England-France World Cup quarter final in Parc des Princes. They did and how could they not?
England versus France in rugby was the last kick of the One Hundred Years’ war, the eternal struggle of both countries to demonstrate that their way was the superior way, always coming back at each other with cultural and aesthetic counterpoints: you have Versailles, we have Buckingham Palace; you have the Kinks, we have Charles Aznavour; you have Brigitte Bardot, we have Julie Christie; you have De Gaulle, we have Thatcher. They have been the best of enemies and the most begrudging of allies and are incapable of understanding each other’s way of life. Even when their mutual urge to conquer the other subsided, it always came alive on the rugby field at Twickenham or in Paris, where they even competed in the singing of the Marseillaise and God Save our Queen.
One of the regrettable developments of professional sport is that it has been hijacked by management speak. There is only so much talk about the ‘process’ and the march ‘back to the drawing board’ you can hear without losing the will to live. It was heartening, therefore, to see that Austin Healy, the impish scrum half who specialised in the box kick and annoying people, was doing his best this week to stir up a bit of old Anglo-Gallic hatred.
“I suppose I shouldn’t tar them all with the same brush,” he writes in his column in the Telegraph – “but if you read their press in recent seasons you get the sense that not only do they not respect the Aviva Premiership, they do not really rate English rugby.”
But not respecting the old Prem’ is just the beginning. Privately, the French consider the British National Gallery to be just a storage facility for the Louvre, that Shakespeare’s overrated and that the English never made a good film. But when it comes to rugby, they have never been coy about letting their feelings be known and Healey, for one, has had enough.
“For a number of years, players such as [Imanol Harinordoquy] have openly disrespected English rugby so I think that Lancaster’s side needs to go to Paris in the spirit of: ‘we are going to smash them’.”
It may not trouble Henry V’s “We few, we happy few” speech at Agincourt but at least it was an honest attempt to revive a fine tradition. The French and English have loathed one another much too brilliantly and for far too long to allow their annual rugby meeting to become just another ‘Test’ match.
Back in 1991, the age-old conflict was reduced to the players from both countries eyeballing each other in the tunnel before taking the field in Parc des Princes, muttering their respective oath.