In The Park of Princes

As a youngster, growing up and enjoying rugby, I had many dreams. Normal stuff really, pretty inconceivable in truth, but they were my dreams. One distinct wish, one that stays with me to this day, was all to do with the ball they used to play with on TV.

You’ll know the one I mean. It was made by Adidas. Their name was printed down the ball in a corporate typeface of non capital letters. It was tan in colour and had black tipped ends. It was used in Paris during Five Nations matches in the 1980s; and one particular man carried it better than anyone. He was the maestro among maestros; an arch prince in the park of princes; a Gallic magician made even more magical by his South American hue. He slipped through visiting defences, with that tan ‘ballon’ tucked under his arm, as though the whole game had been invented just for him. It was Serge Blanco’s ball. And I wished with all my heart that I could carry one just the same.

Of course, the game was still amateur. Blanco smoked and drank and was never asked not to. He was about thirteen stone and so was the rest of his back line, but that didn’t matter; backs were suppose to run into gaps not people. Everyone in the team was French, as you might expect from a team calling themselves France, and their names, multi-syllabic and exotic, always rolled from the mouth like the purest rugby poetry; Berbizier, Camberabero, Lagisquet, Bonneval. As a team, they were good at starting fights and running the ball out from their own in-goal area. They produced the unexpected. Their game was off the cuff, in the moment; they planned to live off the sheer concoction of bringing like-minded individuals into close proximity with each other. Sometimes it wouldn’t work and they would shrug their shoulders. Sometimes it would, and the world would rise to its feet.

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Blanco was iconic. He embodied a way of playing the game which only the French could harness. He spawned a generation of rugby disciples. Those who proceeded Blanco’s era still revelled in the game he’d fathered. In the 1999 World Cup, the French put forty-three victorious and outrageous points on tournament favourites New Zealand in the semi finals. Nobody, but the curly haired fullback himself, would have thought that possible.

Blanco is still involved in the French game. The camera will always find him in the crowd and we who loved him as a player will shift uncomfortably in our seats. Uneasy at his size, his seeming gluttony; the way he slouches, disconsolate, as though everything he worked for has just become a fat mess.

Pumped full of cash and well paid imports, the fêted French club game is starting to stick in Les Bleus throats. Not a week goes by without another Southern Hemisphere, big money signing being added to the roster. And in doing so, another brick is added to the wall in the way of emerging French talent.

This seems to leave the national side with players of size. Men of directness and pragmatism, men who have grunt not guile, men who look like Blanco does now, not how he used to. They have been unwell for a while, our Parisian pen friends, and perhaps will not get better until they alter their diet. Homegrown goodness is surely better than that fattening foreign stuff?

This weekend past, France took to the field against Scotland and did, unfortunately, what was expected of them. They put big men across the field, soaked up any attacking intent and then went down the field and settled for a kick at goal. Wesley Fofana, the man with the lyrical name and most lyrical of running games was poignantly subdued. Their clearest try-scoring chance came relatively late on and fell to the winger Yohan Huget. He attempted to run through the Scotland fullback rather than around him, and in the process, spilt his precious cargo.

If you watch that game you’ll see that all the ingenuity and imagination comes from Scotland. France were turgid, solid, staid; their natural ability, which was so adored when Blanco was stretching his legs, seems to have been replaced by a blunt stubbornness. ‘It is the modern game,’ they cry. I’m not so sure. I’ve seen some lovely ‘French’ tries scored recently, just not by France. The gift of invention, which they gave to the world, is now sadly lacking.

And no doubt, up in the stand, Serge Blanco looks on. Wishing, along with the rest of us, that he could have his tan-coloured, black-tipped, Adidas ball back.

Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.

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