Rugby Union in France – Part 1
Rugby Union was introduced to France by the British in 1872, and by 1906 the national side played its first game against New Zealand in Paris. Like the national football team, the side is called “Les Bleus” in reference to the playing shirt and the French flag. The side competes annually in the Six Nations Championship against England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy. The French team is considered to be one of the strongest sides in the world and is known around the world for the charismatic style the side plays in.
France started playing in the home nation in 1910 and they did not win a title outright until 1959, but from this date onwards the strength of the side has increased markedly. The team has never won the World Cup but has been losing finalists on three occasions, and in 2023 will be hosting the tournament.
The side plays their home games at the Stade de France in Paris which has a capacity of 81,000 spectators. They also play some of their home games at the Stade Veledrome in Marseilles, where the side has only lost twice. This is hardly a surprise, as the South of France is renowned for being home to the passion behind French rugby. During the 1960s and 1970s the French team won or shared the title on 7 occasions and during this period a major part was played by the Boniface brothers. Hailing from Montfort-en-Chalosse in South-West France, both brothers played in the back line for the national side on numerous occasions, often playing together.
Tragically, younger brother Guy was killed at the age of 31 in a car accident, having won 35 caps for his country. Elder brother played 48 times for France switching between the centres and the wing, and during their time in the national side, they both played alongside Jo Maso, who is currently the team manager of the French side.
A common feature of 1970s home nations rugby was the appearance of the French flank-forward Jean-Pierre Rieves. His flowing blonde hair made him stand out on any pitch that he was playing on, as did his performances. His high energy contributions earned the man from Toulouse 59 caps, of which 34 were as captain, and he is now earning his living as a visual creator, he also designed the current Six Nations trophy.
The 1980s was another successful decade for the French side, with them being part of 6 winning titles in the 10 years. The emergence of Serges Blanco at full back re-defined the role of that position. In his 93 caps, the man from Biarritz scored 233 points and played a major part in creating the image of the French side during this era.
Just as important at this time was Phillipe Sella who played 111 times for France, scoring 125 points. There were times when the centre from Tonneins, just outside Argens in South West France, appeared unstoppable, and in the 1986 Five Nations Championship he became one of the few players to score a try in each match. The man who has played for France more than any other is Fabien Pellous. He won 118 caps between 1995 and 2007. Playing as a second row forward, the player from Toulouse scored 38 tries for his country and captained the side 42 times.
He would often share the pitch with Imanol Harinordoquy, the no. 8 forward from Biarritz. The Basque speaking player epitomized the spirit of the French forwards in the 21st century. Winning 82 caps, he often led the side with his energetic performance and his sheer will to win. Many of the great French players have emerged from the southern half of the country and this reflects the passion that is felt for the sport in this region of France.