Rugby Union: France Upstages England in Art of Political Farce ; Conflicts between Clubs, Country and Federation Fuel the Chaos Consuming French Rugby
Hewett, Chris, The Independent (London, England)
NOW THAT the balloon has gone up over Twickenham, it may soon drift across the Channel and collide with the one floating over the Paris headquarters of the Federation Francaise de Rugby. If anything, the oval-ball war in Tricolore country is dirtier than the one being fought out among Les Rosbifs. In France, everyone loathes everyone else: the clubs cannot abide the governing body, which doesn't rate the players, who don't like the president, who doesn't think much of the coach, who doesn't like the structure. Terrific, eh?
"There are any number of conflicting interests here, just as there are in England," said Richard Pool-Jones, the England Test flanker who has spent the last decade playing club rugby in France and is one of the linchpins of a high-class Stade Francais side challenging hard for this season's Heineken Cup title. "However, this being France, there is a tremendous amount of cloak and dagger about the way the politics is conducted. We have a saying here, which roughly translates as: `I love you, and me neither.'
That just about sums it up. Much of it is school playground stuff, but it's pretty sad to see close friendships being wrecked before your eyes." Under the circumstances, this may be a good moment for French rugby to take a rain-check. Following this afternoon's round of matches in the 21-team club championship, there will be no more top-level activity until Bernard Laporte's international side take the field for the Six Nations game with England at Twickenham on 7 April. The Test players will be in camp near Bordeaux, the club professionals will rest up for a fortnight and the more enlightened politicians - not least the great full- back from Biarritz, Serge Blanco - will attempt to break the cycle of insult and counter-insult.
But today's championship games are themselves a point of friction between Blanco's club movement and Bernard Lapasset's federation. "We have an important league match at Agen, yet our international players - Dominici, Lombard, Marconnet and the rest - have not been permitted to train with us this week," said Pool-Jones. (Indeed, Laporte did not release the Test contingent until yesterday evening). "That makes it very difficult to prepare for a match that means so much to the club.
"Our next game against Castres has been rescheduled for 10 April, three days after Twickenham, and our Test players will be in no condition to give of their best. I accept that some of the championship rugby in France is of poor quality: when we play Perigueux, for instance, it's a low-level fixture. But Agen and Castres are serious propositions. To be asked to play significant matches under such circumstances... well, it's pretty outrageous. There is no justice in this arrangement." Lapasset, the president of the FFR and a member of the ruling council of the International Rugby Board, is the very personification of French savoir-faire. At least, he was until he watched his countrymen make an almighty Horlicks of last weekend's Six Nations game with Wales in Paris. …