French rugby is different to any other type of rugby in the world, I have played against South Africans, Australians, and Kiwis and yet French rugby is completely different. For starters the point system in French leagues is different, to get an attacking bonus point you have to score 3 more tries than your opponent, no matter how many tries you score you don’t get that bonus point until you’ve scored three more than the other team.
When I think of France and rugby I think of the great playmakers and skilful players such as Phillipe Sella and Serge Blanco as well as the likes of Thomas Castaignede and Christophe Dominici. These players alone epitomise the word “joué”, the French word for ‘play’. When you watch videos of these players you can see why France has a reputation for a free-flowing, off-loading, and attractive style of rugby. However, as much as this is true, there is more to French rugby than just that. It would be rude not to highlight what the French see when they play, watch and support rugby.
Essentially there are two important things in French rugby, the first is the scrum. Every forward in a team is rated on his ability in the “melee”. If you can’t scrum then you aren’t respected as a forward, and those who do scrum well are the most recognised amongst the other French players and supporters alike. Some of the biggest guys from around the rugby playing world come to test themselves in France, and some big names have learnt a lot of lessons during their time here.
This physicality is shared across the pitch, and, despite French backs being on the whole smaller than average, the mix of imported Pacific Islander and the Latin passion that exists in the southern heartland of French rugby gives you massive collisions and fights every week. It’s no wonder then that the training schedules are rather low key and less physically demanding than that of their English counterparts.
The second is winning at home. All but two of the clubs in the top two divisions in France play in the southern part of the country (even those two are in the same city). The rivalries between regions dates back hundreds of years, before rugby had been discovered, yet in the modern day it is this sport that supporters and players channel their pride and passion for their city. Being defeated at home is a catastrophe, so all the home-bred players are always fired up for matches “a domicile”.
This in turn has a reverse effect on away matches, especially those after long 13 hour coach journeys. You often see the population of the physio room swelling rapidly before away trips to Lyon or Grenoble. I think, especially at a mid-table club like Tarbes (my current team), that the coach’s main focus is on the home games and away games are often seen as lost causes. This defeatist attitude may be down to the nature of the coach or just a type of season planning. Whereas in England every game is seen as a must win game, and players are always fired up for the away trips to bring home a scalp at the end of the day.
There are a lot of similarities between French rugby and an almost medieval era, the physicality, the passion and pride, the importance of defending your home ground. Although you could argue this is reflected in rugby around the world, it is even more so in France. The history, the Latin blood flowing throw the veins, the passion shown by players and supporters, the ever present drum beats from fans at every match provides a completely different atmosphere to that provided at English clubs.
If you ask a Frenchman about rugby he’ll often reply “c’est la guerre” which translates as “this is war”, nowhere else have I heard rugby described in this fashion and nowhere else have those words been more accurate…Harry Spencer is a rugby player formerly of Saracens and Bedford Blues, now living the dream in the Pyrenees playing for french second division team, Tarbes. Harry also writes a fortnightly blog at French Rugby Club. Follow Harry on twitter @harry_spencer