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Surviving Le Crunch

Sebastien Chabal and Johnny Wilkinson

On rugby rivalry, Anglo-French relations, and places in Paris that Englishmen should avoid.

“No ball game is ever much good unless the people involved hate each other” – Avery.

I’ve searched for answers, but I still don’t know which Avery made that famous quote. Maybe it was Tex Avery, the animation genius. Maybe it was James Avery, Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince. Whoever it was, I’m 100 percent behind him. Which is why I never understood why rivalries like UNC-Duke and Red Sox-Yankees figure so big in the American sporting psyche. I can accept that those teams’ fans have a genuine contempt for the opposition, but how exactly does that translate across an entire continent?

The USA looks inwards for its great sporting rivalries. So it misses out on one of the simple joys of being a sports fan: rallying behind the national team as it goes head-to-head with its great rivals from abroad. Deep down, as much as the powers that be at America’s major sports leagues hate it, that’s what America wants, too.

That’s why at the beginning of March 2008, ESPN viewers voted Team USA’s ice hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics as their all time number one sports highlight. Beating the Ruskies at their own game during the final days of the Cold War? What’s not to love?

As soon as you buy into the idea that the team with your country’s name on the front of their shirts is representing you, you’re hooked in. Whether they’re actually doing that is in the eye of the beholder. But if that team plays like you’d want to be represented, that’s sport at its most irresistible.

***

My team, for better or for worse, is England Rugby. I’m addicted. I suffered with them through the late 1980s when they were the worst side in the annual Five Nations Championship (getting routinely pummelled by the Scots, Welsh, Irish and French), and became hopelessly hooked as they became a global force in the early 1990s. Bear in mind that I’m in no way an objective observer, but for my money, sport’s greatest annual rivalry is the battle between the two fiercest foes of Northern hemisphere rugby: England v France. Le Crunch.

Soccer is the number one sport in both countries, but the national sides of England and France rarely, if ever, meet in meaningful matches. In rugby, on the other hand, the fixture is at least an annual occasion. They’ve played each other in the Five (latterly Six) Nations every year since 1910 (breaking off for the small matter of two World Wars and questions of amateurism in the 1930s). They’ve met three times in the quad-annual World Cups too, in 1991, 2003 and 2007, victory every time going to the white-shirted Englishmen.

Like all truly belligerent rivalries though, the meaning of the game goes far beyond sport. France and England have been at War for the best part of 1,000 years. We’ve been tight since the turn of the 20th century, though. So we’ve needed other occasions for reinforcing each other’s national stereotypes. The English, as every Frenchman will tell you, are warm beer-drinking baboons raised by trolls on food fit for pigs. The French, as every Englishman will tell you, are horse eating surrender monkeys.

It’s with this mutual amity that these two sides lock horns. In the infamous 1991 World Cup quarter-final in Paris, France’s star player, the mercurial Serge Blanco, found himself trampled under a herd of English boots after fielding the opening kick off. A slippering, in the parlance of the game. Highly displeased by this turn of events after misfielding another high kick, he took a well-aimed swing at Nigel Heslop, temporarily knocking out the English winger. The action that followed was as brilliantly bad tempered as its beginning, becoming the game of the tournament in the process.

Throughout most of the following two decades the annual game, by now labelled Le Crunch, became a de facto Five and Six Nations Championship decider. In 2003 France back row Imanol Harinordoquy demonstrated the animosity perfectly.

“I despise them as much as they despise everybody else,” he declared. “As long as we beat England I wouldn’t mind if we lost every other game in the Six Nations.

“Every time I had played against English teams in my youth, I found it extremely unpleasant. They are so chauvinistic and arrogant, they look down on everybody and, in one particular U-21s game I found the attitude of the players and spectators intolerable.”

That’s fighting talk.

However, from a spectator’s point of view the truly wonderful thing about this rivalry is that it only exists on the pitch. The players hate each other. That’s a good thing. But despite this animosity, the fans can still get together and enjoy the game like adults. There’s guaranteed to be a few drinks involved. And a few gentles barbs are to be expected, too. But rugby is a game that proudly keeps its violence contained to the pitch. The bond between rugby fans goes beyond nationalities. That’s the theory, anyway. And it deserved investigating.

***

It was, technically speaking, a romantic long weekend in Paris. Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with a girlfriend wonderful enough to understand that when international rugby is on TV I’m physically incapable of not watching, especially when England is playing, and especially when England is playing France.

Unless I was prepared to enter the black market and start haggling over large sums of cash with quasi-criminals in a language I can’t speak, an actual ticket to the game was unlikely. What I wanted was the next best thing. A trip into Parisian rugby culture.

It wasn’t hard to find. Hundreds of bars and cafes around Paris were advertising Saturday’s Six Nations triple-header, climaxing at 9pm with Le Crunch.

A tiny patch on The Left Bank around Rue Princesse is Paris’ Quartier Rugby; streets packed with standing room only bars, populated by large men with missing teeth and misplaced ears. Fifteen minutes before Le Crunch was due to kick off and squeezing into any of them was going to be a tough ask. Brasserie O’Neil only looked 99 percent full.

Je voudrais regarder le rugby,” I stuttered when halted by a burley doorman, “mais je suis anglais”. As if he needed any clarification.

He didn’t seem to mind and ushered me in. I fought my way to a six-inch patch of ground with a good view of an overhead screen. I knew I was in the right place when the entire bar started belting out La Marseillaise during the pre-match anthems. I screwed up my England Rugby scarf, shoved it in a pocket and nervously glanced around. There wasn’t an empty foot of floor space to be found. And directly behind me had materialised a pair of towering Frenchmen who looked like they knew their way around a rugby pitch (as opposed to me, who knows my way around a sofa while looking at a rugby pitch on TV). That bond between rugby fans and the power of the great sporting rivalry were about to clash.

It wasn’t going to be France’s night. England scored a try after a mere five minutes, causing me to spontaneously holler in a combination of shock and joy. Realising my faux pas I instantly apologised to my neighbours, especially the two big guys behind me. They laughed it off. The beer flowed. A great time was being had by all.

ALLEZ!!’ the entire pub roared every time a French player broke the game line, followed by a collective groan as England repeatedly smothered the attacks. As the game drifted into the second half, I could sense that a few choice comments were being thrown my way. Thankfully, my French is poor enough that I couldn't understand any of them.

“Come on Frenchie!” came a Gallic voice from directly behind me, followed by a few spiteful cackles of laughter. I ignored it. The curious and slightly pitiful glances that had welcomed the lone English fan turned into lingering stares as the gradual realisation that France were about to lose to their hated rival dawned on all present.

Drawn between wanting to celebrate and a desire to keep my teeth, I kept my delight at the unfolding drama as muted as possible. The final whistle couldn’t come quickly enough. I smuggled my scarf under my coat and headed for the door.

“You stole zat game,” someone snarled at me.

Oui,” was the only response I could think of, before swiftly burrowing my way out. I’d escaped with my head in one piece. Just. Avery may have been right about what makes a great game, and hatred is a strong word; but seeing how upset those poor French guys were made the victory so much sweeter.

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