Of course, now that all the other home nations have been knocked out of the Rugby World Cup, we Brits and Irish are all Welsh as far as rugby’s concerned. It therefore behoves all of you out there to learn more about the unpredictable opposition we’ll be facing in Saturday’s semi-final…
Wales’s defence coach, the pugnacious but perspicacious Shaun Edwards (definitely not above), is as puzzled as the rest of us as to what his team will face on Saturday:
I wouldn’t have any idea about France.
Les Bleus are surely one of the most enigmatic top-level teams in world sport: capable of beating anyone on their day but never really sure of when their day is. Flair exchanges itself for brittleness; hardness for brutality; dynamism for chaos – mostly with little discernible reason other than a bit of pressure from the opposition. And vice versa, of course (but with no discernible reason whatsever). They’re a mixed-up bunch and they always have been.
The game was first promoted in late-19th century Paris by a group of gentlemen, among them the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who were enamoured of the British Empire’s achievements and believed organised sport was one of the secrets of its success. However, something strange happened in the translation of a game so imbued with manly, rugged and self-effacing virtues.
We find in this fascinating cultural history of French rugby union a description of the first rugbymen:
As students whose primary sporting interest was in running and jumping, and as either aristocrats or members of the haute bourgeoisie, they were ill disposed to both the physicality and the anonymity of rugby’s forward-play, in particular. Indeed, some players went so far as to refuse to participate in the union game’s most distinctive feature, the scrummage, or otherwise to compromise their dignity on the field, for instance by tackling opponents below the waist. In a game characterized first and foremost by physical contact, they sought precisely to avoid getting to grips with their fellow players, using feints and side-steps to preserve their splendid isolation on the pitch, valuing above all the solo dash for the opposition’s try-line.
This rather fey enthusiasm for elusiveness – le rugby-panache – became somewhat uneasily yoked to more earthy virtues as the game caught on in the South-West. Latin machismo, peasant robustness and a determination to defend the local terroir combined to produce a rugby culture not unlike that of the Welsh valleys: le rugby de tranchées (i.e. of the trenches).
An emblematic figure was one Jean ‘Le Sultan’ Sébédio, formerly an outstanding player who took up coaching with national success in the inter-war period:
Having already lost a good deal of his vitality as a result of frighteningly excessive drinking, he cultivated his persona by sitting in the middle of the pitch with a long whip and a wide sombrero, making his players run around him like circus horses.
However, it was his penchant for violence and the uncompromising nature of his local allegiance that were most fondly recorded by the chroniclers of French rugby:
Sébédio kept a human skeleton hanging in the referee’s changing room, with a whistle stuck between its jaws, and would inform the concerned official that it was ‘nothing to worry about, just the last referee to give a penalty against [his team]’.
Threats weren’t idle: confrontations could be exceptionally violent with at least one player, Gaston Rivière, dying on the pitch of injuries inflicted in a grudge match. The phenomenon even had its own morbid term: le rugby de muerte (a Spanish-inflected rugby of death…).
Remember where we came in? Epicene players who thought all the grappling physicality of the game really rather gross. From there to rugby as bare-handed murder. At the top of this post is the French team’s current left winger Alexis Palisson posing for a gay magazine. Is it at all surprising they’re an unpredictable lot?