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


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.

Same brush
“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.

Brian Moore, recalling the day in his wonderfully entertaining memoir Beware of the Dog certainly wasn’t about to let the importance of the encounter slip by.

To begin with, the English team was sequestered in the Trianon Palace hotel in Versailles, which, he discovered, “used to be the servants quarters of the centre of the Ancien Regime”. That morning, he wandered around the palace, trying to imagine the French mindset in the moments of the revolution, picturing them storming the gates. It set him up for what was to come.

“To be chosen by England to do battle on its behalf was a great honour. I returned to the hotel aware of the responsibility we bore: we must not lose.” Bloody hell! So much for Crouch, Set, Engage.

Rugby may have been invented by the English but as the game developed, it was clear the soul of the game belonged to the French. “The French will only be united under the threat of danger. Nobody can simply bring together a country that has 265 kinds of cheese,” lamented Charles de Gaulle in 1951, when the French had yet to win a Five Nations championship.

Effortlessly cool
In the decades that followed, however, it became apparent they could be united through their shared intuition for rugby.

No country could make running with a rugby ball look as effortlessly cool as the French could. In the 1970s, most international props and locks held down day jobs as solicitors or doctors. But when Jean Pierre Rives, the idol of the French game in the 1970s, finished up with rugby, he became a sculptor. You won’t be seeing him on Sky Sport any time soon.

The French played rugby as if it was a demonstration of collective imagination. You could hear the awe in commentator Nigel Starmer-Smith’s voice whenever Phillipe Sella or Serge Blanco took possession deep in their own half. Anything could happen. In 1991, when the countries also met in the closing Five Nations game, the French executed one of their best ever tries from nothing. England missed a penalty kick, Pierre Berbizier made to touch the ball down for a 22 and as England slept, he instead flung the ball out to Serge Blanco who took off like a bullet along the wing. The next part was typical; Sella and Camberabero and company running riot through befuddled English men and then a kick forward which Philippe Saint Andre, the current coach, touched down under the posts.

The French, at their best, made other teams look cloddish and slow-witted by comparison. The English recovered to win the match and the Grand Slam. But it is the score which lives on two decades later.

Any time that try is shown, it illustrates just how much imagination and spontaneity has been squeezed from the contemporary game. As it is, England will arrive in Paris in bullish mood, confident they can increase their run of six wins in the last seven matches. You suspect the French have become a bit bored of rugby in its current guise, with its heavy emphasis on recycling the ball, building on the tackle count and always playing the percentages.

Mere winning is not enough for the French: it has always been about expression. The international rugby season needs France in full adventurous flow it is to be a success. If the sight of England rumbling onto the field in Paris today does not stir them up, then nothing will.

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