Who could imagine France would lose fear factor?

Every time Bobby Windsor went off to fight the French during the lawless 70s, he would tell his wife: “Take a look at my face because you might not recognise it when I get back.”

In an era when most referees turned a blind eye, the old Lions hooker slugged it out with all-comers but even he would feel a shiver of fear before running into a mob whose collective violence put them somewhere between Peaky Blinders and The Gangs of New York.

“The French were different,” Windsor told me. “They were mean and vicious. They always kicked shit out of me. With them, it was always war.

The fearsome former scrums of the France 1977 Grand Slam winners (from top left), flanker Jean Claude Skrela; captain Jean Pierre Bastiat; second row Michel Palmie; hooker Alain Paco, and prop Gerard Cholley. Picture: Getty Images
The fearsome former scrums of the France 1977 Grand Slam winners (from top left), flanker Jean Claude Skrela; captain Jean Pierre Bastiat; second row Michel Palmie; hooker Alain Paco, and prop Gerard Cholley. Picture: Getty Images

“We had to go in and punch and boot them like mad and even then it was touch and go whether we’d beat them by pure violence. I will go to my grave with the names of those bastards engraved on my heart.”

They include Michel Palmie, a lock whose capacity for violence ultimately forced the French Rugby Federation to ban him from Test rugby for life. 

Some 20-odd years later, he not only resurfaced as a senior member of the aforementioned Federation but reinvented himself as, wait for it, head of discipline.

One of his sidekicks from Beziers, the prop Armand Vaquerin, came to a stickier end, blowing his brains out during a game of Russian roulette at his bar, Le Cardiff. 

While the Rasputin-like Alain Esteve softened the opposition up with uppercuts from the second row, Gerard Cholley was the one who laid them out.

At Murrayfield during the 1977 Five Nations, Cholley put four Scottish players in the horizontal position before half-time. 

A paratrooper and amateur heavyweight champion, Cholley has complained that ‘there is no fear in rugby any more,’ a deficiency which could be traced back to his retirement.

The mind boggles at what the past-President of Castres thought of Sunday’s mismatch against England when France were counted out a demoralisingly long way inside the distance. 

In his day, Les Bleus never went down without a fight.

At Twickenham, they didn’t land a single punch, literally or figuratively. 

In that respect, it was the pits and that, for a country whose team has finished in the top half of the Six Nations once in the last seven years, takes some doing.

Throwing it away against Wales in Paris was bad enough to inspire one word of condemnation on the front page of L’Equipe the next morning: ‘Desesperant!’ (Appalling). 

After Twickenham, the sense of anger had been superceded by one of resignation at the gap between the ancient rivals widening to a gulf.

‘Un Autre Monde’ (Another World), it said on an image of Owen Farrell shaking a fist in triumph while behind him a French player, Romain Ntamack, hands on knees, looked the picture of misery.

Should they lose again next week at home to Scotland before heading for Dublin next month, France could very easily end up in Rome playing for the wooden spoon.

They appear to be rather more deserving of it than the Italians who have scored two tries more.

The wider shame lies in the fact that the tournament has been all the poorer since France ought to have won the World Cup at Eden Park in 2011.

Sadly, they have been going to pieces ever since. Even more sadly, their predicament might have to get worse before it gets better.

And back in Newport where Windsor learnt how to stand up for himself, the old steelworker shakes his head in disbelief. 

He never thought he’d live to see the day when nobody fears the French any more…

World Rugby must firm up rules on nation-hopping

Another player has switched allegiance and by the end of next week he could have taken the shortest of cuts into the Six Nations. 

After two winning Junior World Cup finals in the white of his native England, Callum Braley of Gloucester is in the process of converting to Italy.

Braley does so on the strength of an Italian grandfather and it is fair to say he will be higher up the scrum-half rankings in Italy than in England. 

Gloucester’s Callum Braley is tackled by Jake Kerr of Leicester Tigers. Picture: Shaun Botterill/Getty
Gloucester’s Callum Braley is tackled by Jake Kerr of Leicester Tigers. Picture: Shaun Botterill/Getty

He is simply the latest in a lengthening list to decide that the grass somewhere else really is greener than home.

There is nothing in the eligibility rules to prevent a player appearing for one country at the U20 grade and a different one further up the chain but the number of those changing direction in recent years keeps on escalating.

Braley is at least the sixth England U20 player to change his colours.

Ross Moriarty and Will Addison, members of England’s Junior World Cup champion team of five years ago, are playing for Wales and Ireland respectively.

Having left Gloucester for Ulster, Billy Burns hopes to be joining them.

Who could imagine France would lose fear factor?

Exeter flanker Sam Skinner has taken a different route out of the English juniors to Scotland, a move made possible by the fact that his father, Peter, comes from Ayr.

Another of junior Red Rose, David Sisi, did a sterling job for Italy’s pack in Rome last weekend.

Not all the movement has been out of England. Luke Hamilton switched from Wales U20s to Scotland, Tommaso Allan from Scotland’s under-age team to Italy and, most recently, Brad Shields from New Zealand’s U20s to England.

With the stable door wide open for more horses to bolt wherever the fancy takes them, World Rugby needs to reconsider its decision allowing players to hop from one country to another with impunity.

One man's tackle is another's sin-binning

The Scots followed up Greig Laidlaw’s weekend moan about Romain (‘He-doesn’t-like-us’) Poite with another yesterday, this one aimed at the TMO, English former referee Rowan Kitt.

Head coach Gregor Townsend asked, not unreasonably, why he had not checked the Peter O’Mahony tackle which hurt Stuart Hogg badly enough for the Scottish full back to end up kicking a hole in a touchline advertising board.

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg kicks ahead just before being injured by a tackle from Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony. Picture: Ian Rutherford/PA
Scotland’s Stuart Hogg kicks ahead just before being injured by a tackle from Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony. Picture: Ian Rutherford/PA

On the basis that the tackle was late, Townsend argued that “the TMO should have come in to check an incident which the referee wasn’t 100% clear on as it happened so quickly”.

Neither Poite nor Kitt considered such action necessary over an incident which has not prompted any citing of the Munster captain. 

Criticism of too many stoppages for video analysis prompted World Rugby to encourage referees to make decisions, wherever possible, on the hoof.

Nigel Owens did so at Twickenham in awarding England a penalty try for Gael Fickou’s illegal tackle on Chris Ashton. 

At normal speed it looked an open-and-shut case. 

Replay suggested the French wing was doubly hard done by, seven points against his team and ten minutes in the bin, the minimum requirement by law.

Which only goes to show that referee and TMO are damned if they do and damned if they don’t…

Noves takes French to court

A new French farce is scheduled to open in a courthouse in Toulouse today. 

Guy Noves is demanding that his former employers pay him €2.9m in compensation for sacking him as national coach last season.

‘’They take me for an idiot,’’ Noves said. ‘’I want to shout aloud that my sacking has been injustice. They hurt me badly. ’’

Who could imagine France would lose fear factor?

It can be safely deduced, therefore, that Noves, 65 last week, is not in conciliatory mood. 

After almost 20 years in charge of Toulouse, he took over from Philippe Saint-Andre for the start of 2016 Six Nations only to be sacked 48 hours after Christmas 2017.

By then, France under Noves had played 21 Tests and failed to win two-thirds of them. 

A cynical but perfectly true fact of life in soccer management springs to mind, the one about nothing succeeding like failure.

Should he win a claim which amounts to substantially more than the value of the remainder of his contract, cynics will not be slow to point out that the same now applies to rugby as well.


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