One of the big differences between French and English rugby besides the French flair on the pitch, is for me, the absence of arrogance and as an extension of that, and the accessibility the players give to their public. This also sets them apart from professional soccer players who seem, in the main, to play up their star status and are often out of touch with their fans, something which French rugby players tend not to be. This good relationship is the same for foreign rugby players who settle in France and play for French teams.
One of the treats associated with the Rugby World Cup 2011 was a TF1 (top French TV station) “fly-on-the-wall” documentary for the series Reportages. It must be extremely difficult to fade into the background sufficiently so that the subjects of the programme do not feel threatened or change their behaviour while filming. The questions, commentaries and editing have to be commended. It was reminiscent of a similarly riveting and well-conceived report when a film crew, also from TF1, followed the World Cup winning soccer team in 1998.
In both of these pieces, the French coaches were like Marmite – you either loved or hated them, there was not really a divided opinion from fans. I liked both men and after watching the documentaries, I found myself coming to understand the enormity of their task, the internal and external pressures they faced, and then appreciating both Marc Liévremont and Aimé Jacquet (the soccer coach) even more.
It’s also fascinating to see how players who are at the top of their game, who are not much younger than the guys coaching them, who week in and week out have responsibilities for motivating and directing team mates in their own clubs, who are leading lights and strong characters on and off the field, cope with having to take a supporting role when there can only be one captain at national level. Apart from the physical, tactical and political issues the documentary highlighted, it was also fantastic to follow the friendships which are forged under the XV de France banner between people who are normally rivals, slogging it out for bragging rights in the Top 14 the rest of the year.
The highs and lows of the team, the celebrations, the physical preparation, the team talks and analysis before and after each match of the RWC were unmissable.
France 2, I seem to remember, aired a similar documentary. This time it followed the team in the two month pre-NZ preparation phase. This was bulking the bodies up phase and laid the foundations in terms of muscle power, team bonding and the forging of partnerships and trust. Liévremont was clever with the activities he and his team of sports scientists chose. They also got to visit a few regions of France with the odd showcase training session to build bridges with the public and create enthusiasm and loyalty on both sides. A lot of the XV de France appreciate being close to nature – Julien Bonnaire, Dmitiri Yachvilli and Julien Malzieu like to be near to water and to fish, for example. Most of the team appreciate the chance to s’oxygener, to take the air and to “blow the cobwebs away”.
In the programme they could be seen in the mountains cycling through some pretty steep terrain building stamina and balance. This was to the delight of the locals who they passed on their way to a pre-destined rendezvous point. Camping and cooking around a camp fire like a band of boy scouts. Winning treats such as saucisson and la bouteille de rouge for hitting the target during an archery session. Helping local farmers by rolling huge bails of hay into position in the fields on a hot, sunny day. Training with the military to instil discipline, power and team work. Participating in sailing challenges at the crack of dawn, hiking through forests carrying a heavy dinghy until eventually the water was found in the mist and the task which was based around endurance and teamwork was accomplished. Individually they were even pulled along by husky dogs, making them resist the considerable canine force. Fantastic images of some inventive and as it turned out, successful pre-tournament preparation, shared with their followers.
There were times during the RWC that I had to be in Paris (I don’t’ want that to seem like a chore because it wasn’t!) and it made me mad to see how vehement and violent with their propos the French media were. That was the media; it wasn’t the public who luckily supported their players. However, far from this reality and linked only by press and TV coverage, the players had to swallow the criticisms of the journalistic community. Defeat at the hands of Tonga and putting Morgan Parra in at number 10 were only two of the flash points. Many of those responsible congregated in the same hotel and faced key players and Marc Liévremont, looked them in the eyes and then stabbed them in the back. No wonder there grew to be tensions, suspicions and distrust in press conferences.
Away from the RWC, a mini series of film clips which has given us hours of pleasure is Destins Melés which means Intertwined Destinies. You rediscover your favourites from the XV de France and top clubs in cameo clips which are cleverly interwoven. We see them training, chatting in the car, socialising, introducing us to favourite haunts, coming together for France games, the before or after Top 14 matches and you get a real feeling of their camaraderie and joie de vivre. You know you are going to be amused when Imanol Harinordoquy and Fabien Barcella (both team mates at Biarritz Olympique) come on screen. Imanol has the reputation as being a mean, hard, English hating number 8 but he is also genuinely funny and enjoys teasing people. With Barcella they make a very entertaining double act. Destins Melés takes you on different trips from Clermont to Toulouse, to Biarritz and to Paris. Over 30 mini-clips of a few minutes duration. It’s nice to see them making fun of other players who aren’t present, either for their dress sense or hairstyle. We get to visit Aurelien Rougerie’s restaurant, we follow Maxime Medard boxing and find out how it saved his career, we see a crowd of A-listers visiting Paris, and even meet Julien Malzieu’s cat ( which is memorable because he picks it up as if its’ a rugby ball which luckily it doesn’t seem to mind ! ). There’s lots more to discover and it’s worth checking out.
Another original feature of the exposure that French players get is that some of them (mostly Clermont or Toulouse players) have been interviewed “Dans La Chambre”… (In the bedroom) by women reporters. Not that I’m jealous or anything but it does seem like a pretty good job to me! The best interviewer of French rugby players is, for me, Emilie Serre from l’ASM Clermont Auvergne …. Almost every week she will interview one or more of the Clermont squad about something topical, and she doesn’t need a bedroom to do a good job!
Thanks to these more intimate conversations we know that Morgan Parra always sleeps by the wall and Julien Bonnaire, his Clermont / XV room-mate always sleeps by the window. JB goes to sleep first (he’s older!) but apparently often gets frustrated with Morgan who needs to get to sleep with the TV on (lying in his boxers, face down!) Maxime Medard takes his sketch book with him. He’s taking an architecture / interior design course and enjoys sketching to kill the long hours when playing away from home. Julien Pierre is a self- confessed book worm and away from the rugby pitch is something of a conservationist and animal lover. This isn’t surprising as he was brought up in a zoo which his parents ran. Team mate Aurelien Rougerie has been in Clermont since he was six years old. His father played for Clermont and his mum was also sporty and was a champion hand ball player. He is a key figure in Clermont and as well as being captain of the team is an accomplished businessman and devoted father to his 3 children.
As you can see from some of the snippets, the French players are ordinary guys, men not machines, who don’t mind inviting us in and giving us a privileged insight into their lives. They bond with us at a more human level and because of that they are respected and given space by the public so they can be like any other “Monsieur Tout-le-Monde”. They appreciate the simple things in life and what many would describe as true values. Fun loving characters away from the pitch, they know how to work and play hard whilst all the while respecting their followers in return.