Why Frenchmen make more passes

French Rugby Football

五月 10, 2002

French rugby is a nearby country about which Britain knows surprisingly little. This despite first-hand contact between national teams since France joined the Five (now six) Nations championship before the first world war, and direct competition between clubs since the launch of the Heineken European Cup in 1995. But France is recognised as the game's "great exception", an isolated Gallic splash on a map dominated by the British and their former dominions and zones of influence, such as the Anglophile middle-classes of Argentina. French play the game differently as well - sports scientists at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, found the French national team far likelier to pass or run with the ball, and less likely to kick, than any other major rugby power.

Their teams are thrilling and capricious, capable of generating brilliance, joy, mayhem and brutality beyond the compass of others. There is an intriguing parallel with that other great outsider, Pakistani cricket, similarly distanced by language, religion and culture from its game's mainstream, equally productive of players who induce both wonderment and horror.

We know, or at least perceive, all of this. What we do not know, beyond the standard British suspicion that "French exceptionalism" is tautology, is how they got that way.

This is not because France lacks an explanatory, analytical rugby literature. Indeed, it has been better served by its academics than any other nation, with sociologists and anthropologists willing to devote serious study to the game. The journalist Jean Lacouture, biographer of Ho Chi Minh and De Gaulle, for example, doubled as rugby correspondent of Le Monde . But little, unfortunately, has been translated, with Denis Lalanne's Great Fight of the French Fifteen (1959), recognised as a classic of that admittedly debased form, the tour account, about the beginning and end of it.

English-medium attempts to explain French singularity arrive on a 20-year cycle: Alex Potter and Georges Duthen's The Rise of French Rugby (1961) followed by Richard Holt's Sport and Society in Modern France (1981), and now Philip Dine in 2001.

Dine has the understanding of rugby that comes from being a fan and player, and an enthusiasm reflected in a wealth of anecdote and perception about remarkable players such as Jean Sebedio, Jean Prat, Puig-Aubert, Guy Boniface and Serge Blanco, clubs such as Aviron Bayonnais, Lourdes, Stade Toulousain and Beziers, and decisive moments such as France's first Five Nations championship in 1959 and the Grand Slam that followed nine years later.

But more importantly he places these personalities, institutions and events in their cultural, historical and social context. C. L. R. James said that to write a biography of cricketer Donald Bradman you had also to write a history of Australia. Dine's achievement is that the reader will end this book understanding more not only of French rugby and how it got that way, but of France as a whole.

He shows how a game owing its introduction into France to late 19th-century Anglophilia among the Parisian elite spread via the agency of state schools anxious to combat the church's propagation of football, and eventually found its way to a region, the southwest, whose culture and folk traditions were peculiarly fitted to it. The southwest's patriarchal traditions in turn generated the dictatorial management familiar in both clubs and the national federation, while its culture of festivity informed playing styles.

Dine explains how the game has been inflected by France's great faultlines - church vs state, religious schisms, rural vs urban, left vs right, Paris vs provinces, and also how it has left its mark. An intriguing aside suggests that the popularity of the beret basque , every stage-Frenchman's headgear, can be dated to Aviron Bayonnais's successes immediately before the first world war.

He is particularly good on the cultural underpinning of France's never-ending debate about playing styles, and perhaps even better on the role of politics, the state and De Gaulle's astute use of the game. In particular he handles the ugliest part of the story - the suppression of rugby league under Vichy in the second world war - with a nuanced, confident even-handedness. In consequence Dine, whose roots are in rugby union, produces an even more damning account of union's active complicity in this grotesque episode than that offered by the league writer Mike Rylance in The Forbidden Game (1999).

He handles his wealth of sources well, never allowing the analytical framework to obscure the development of a story that is as lucid, well written and entertaining as it is illuminating. One day, perhaps, an enterprising publisher will translate the works of Sebastien Darbon, Jean-Pierre Bodis, Jean Lacouture, Pierre Sansot and other writers. Until then this admirable book will serve not only rugby fans but a wider academic and general readership immensely well as the authoritative work on its subject.

Huw Richards, rugby correspondent of the Financial Times , is visiting researcher, International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University.

French Rugby Football: A Cultural History

Author - Philip Dine
ISBN - 1 85973 322 0 and 3 1
Publisher - Berg
Price - £42.99 and £14.99
Pages - 229



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