Imet the former French player, captain and coach Pierre Berbizier in a night club in Pretoria during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The Scots boys decided to let their hair down one night so we took ourselves to a little speakeasy just down the road from the team hotel.
The French squad were based miles out of town and a long way from any temptations. This was the World Cup they intended to win, they had a handy group of players and most of the forwards had turned up with Marine-like, buzzsaw haircuts. They were very “business business” as the French would have it.
The Scots boys were having a rare old hootenanny when the then French coach walked in and it was difficult to know who was more surprised. Berbizier was speechless as scores of inebriated Scots, who had to play France in about ten days time, greeted him like a long lost brother and plied him with drink.
Berbizier had the last laugh, of course, France beat Scotland thanks to an Emile N’Tamack try well after the 80. All I can offer in our defence was that the game was amateur in those days and yes, you might want to add, some teams a lot more so than others.
Berbizier stepped down after the RWC’95 with a 69 per cent winning percentage that Guy Noves would have died for. The little man then enjoyed a spell with Italy where he was even more successful, relatively speaking. The Frenchman left after three years as Italy’s most successful coach with a 41 per cent winning ratio, a lot better then the next Frenchmen Jacques Brunel who managed just 22 per cent. I wonder what happened to him?
Keen to curry favour, I kick off with a question about RWC’95 where France were desperately unlucky not to make the final after some dubious refereeing decisions in a water-logged semi against the host team. It is a mistake.
“You know what was the problem and the Blacks one week after know what was the problem,” Berbizier spits through gritted teeth. “I don’t want to speak on this World Cup. It was the World Cup of (Nelson) Mandela and South Africa must win so I prefer not to speak on this. We know why. Because South Africa must win this competition!”
These days the national team is struggling but the France that Berbizier captained and coached was highly competitive on the world stage. He played his first ever Test against Scotland in 1981 at the old Parc des Prince and won a Grand Slam at the first time of asking. He recalls his debut, won by France 16-9, with the 22-year-old newbie revelling in the whole experience.
“For me to play against Scotland, it was a big team,” he says. “I remember players like Irvine, Laidlaw and Beattie. I saw them on TV and then I played against them! For me it was a dream.
“It was a good team with these players, Renwick [pronounced Ren-Wick] in the centre, it was a real good team and difficult for us to win. It was a hard game for the French team because we were rebuilding. We were worried, first game in Paris, a lot of noise in the Parc de Princes… it was a good experience for me.”
Berbizier has made the trip to Murrayfield today, scene of his quick thinking in 1986 that almost ended Gavin Hastings’ career before it had got started. The big fella kicked off and kicked the ball dead. The Scots set themselves for a scrum in the middle of the park only to see Berbizier score one of his more simple Test tries from a smartly taken lineout on the halfway line.
After winning a Grand Slam as a player, Berbizier was denied the same as French coach in 1993 when a late drop goal by Jean-Baptiste Lafond hit the Twickenham upright and France lost by a solitary point. Still he recalls that France topped the table that year, the first time anyone had bothered about allocating points and standings.
We talk about the problems in French rugby and whether Bernard Laporte is the man to solve them? “Wait and see,” is Berbizier’s advice while Laporte must wait and see if he faces criminal charges. The latest revelations suggest that one of FFR’s president’s buddies was added to the list of drivers authorised to use the six-strong Parisian pool of “FFR” labelled BMWs despite living in Toulon.
The wealthy clubs have a different agenda to the Federation and there is more communication in a Trappist monastery. Promising talent gets lost in the huge forest that is the Top14. If Murrayfield can miss Gary Graham, think how many undiscovered diamonds must be plying their trade in French rugby. Today’s stand-off, Lionel Beauxis, played in the French U21 team that were World Champions in 2006, since then, nothing.
Berbizier is still coaching with Bayonne in the ProD2, his watchwords, “continuity” and “stability”, unchanged since 1995 but neither is much associated with Les Bleus these days. So, I ask him, can France ever be great again?
“I hope, I hope, I hope,” he says with feeling, “because we need a strong French team but I see the ranking France are at tenth! I managed a team like this when I coached Italy, we were tenth then. It was at the beginning 13th and at the end of RWC’07 we were 8-12th, I can’t remember exactly. [Italy were 11th, but his point is valid.] France is now tenth and I know it should be better. I hope to see them in the top five. That should be their real position. When you see Ireland at third or Scotland at fifth [now seventh] and you remember the resources that France have, the money, the players. Wales, Scotland and Ireland together have fewer professional players than France! It’s not normal! It is difficult to explain why France are tenth/”
And now a young French side are struggling for relevance when the old foe England are re-rejuvenated under new management and their Celtic rivals Ireland and Wales are fiercely competitive. (We’ll reserve judgment about Scotland until after today’s result). How does the past master see this one panning out?
“We will see a good game,” Berbizier insists. “The French team is a new team with a lot of changes against Ireland, a young team, and against Scotland another new team because of injuries. I don’t know what to expect of this French team. They showed a lot of courage against Ireland but that alone is not sufficient at this level.
“The French team must improve their standards if they want to improve their standing in this tournament. It will be very important against Scotland, they must play some rugby and not just defend like they did against Ireland.
“Perhaps with the disruption to the Scottish back line, France have an opportunity to take advantage but after the big defeat in Wales I think we will get a big reaction from the Scots. I expect a good game.”
You hope he’s right. The Scots might surprise Berbizier again. In more orthodox surroundings.