Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rugby a l'Anglaise

I took this exciting pic, in Biarritz.

My blogging has been a tad patchy of late, because I have been travelling across France and Spain. I hope to say more soon. Here's something mildly relevant I wrote for the firstpost last week.

Vive le Rugby

I've never heard such a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise. Grown men are linking arms; lovers are carolling in unison. At the same time, three or four excitable lads are waving the vivid, Union Jack-like flag of the Basques.

The setting is a noisy brasserie in Biarritz: the raffish resort in Le Pays Basque. We are waiting for the first match of the Rugby World Cup to begin: France versus Argentina. And I couldn't be in a better place: because this far southwestern corner of France is, paradoxically, the throbbing heartland of French rugby.

The local side, Olympique Biarritz, have several times won the French championship. Toulouse, just up the road, is another major force. The great Serge Blanco is an Olympique alumnus. But why rugby? Why here?

As the game kicks off, the excitement really surges. It's much livelier than I expected: French people watching sport, even soccer, often seem self conscious about their enthusiasm. In Biarritz there is no such detachment when it comes to rugby. The fans are jumping about, spilling their cider. One classic French lady, complete with yappy dog, is yelling like a Bayonne fishwife at the ref.

Then, quelle horreur, the Argies score a try, from a cruel interception. The brasserie goes eerily quiet. I use the sudden, anxious silence to ask the locals why they love the sport.

Isabelle is a tour guide of Basque-Italian descent: she says: 'Basque men adore rugby because they like to show they are real men. Look at Basque peasant sports - carrying huge stones, sawing big logs - they are all tests of virility. Rugby is a version of that.'

Standing next to her is Paco, a wealthy builder. He reckons, by contrast, that rugby is popular here because it filled a niche when traditional Basque ball games, like the fiery pelota, were repressed. ‘Or maybe it is the violence‘, he says - with a wink.

Suddenly there is a groan. The hapless French fly half has missed an easy penalty. The crowd hisses, Paco tuts, the little old lady slaps her dog. The referee blows for the break.

The second half begins more promisingly. There is an enormous surge by the French pack, which ends with Isabella panting. But then the Argentineans return fire. One man kicks over a chair in disgust.

The final minutes are unbearable. A climax of whistles, jeers, and impenetrable Basque curses makes the commentary inaudible. Lots of contumely is being hurled at the English ref Tony Spreadbury. I start to speak in an American accent.

The game ends. France, unbearably, have lost. The atmosphere is deeply tense.

As we exit the brasserie something happens which I have never seen before in France. There is nearly a fight. Two Aussie surf dudes are chortling rather obviously at the pitiful French performance. Someone chucks a wild punch, the barman intervenes, the fracas breaks up It could be a Salford pub after a spiteful Manchester derby.

I'm not sure why the Basques are so keen and aggressive when it comes to rugby, but I think I recognise the trait. Recent genetic tests show that the Basques share significant ancestry with the British; indeed a new theory holds that the Basques were crucial early settlers of the British Isles, around 8000BC. They are, in a sense, our forefathers

Want to know where the British acquired their warrior spirit? Come to Biarritz. And watch a rugby match.

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