gets over the gain line, behind the headline
The mystery behind a French writer’s claim to have sabotaged an Irish Grand Slam in Paris can be unravelled at long last, 36 years after it happened.
A classic example of the old maxim about news not always being when it happens but sometimes when it breaks, the untold story of how Willie Duggan turned up at the Parc des Princes hors de combat followed a night on the tiles with the ever-gregarious Jean Cormier.
No rugby journalist ever made as many lasting friendships with players from all over the world as the correspondent for Le Parisien, a lovable bear of a man from a Basque village in the Pyrenees whose long fight against a cruel illness ended at ten past four on Monday afternoon, at the age of 75.
When the great and the good join the humble and the meek at the 17th century Church of Saint-Sulpice today, they will laugh and cry at the treasure trove of stories generated by Cormier, each stranger than fiction, like the one concerning a nocturnal going-on before France- Ireland on March 20, 1982.
Holding court a quarter of a century later at one of his favourite watering holes on the Left Bank after the 2007 World Cup final, Cormier would spin hair-raising yarns like how he walked straight into the block where terrorists killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympiad in Munich wearing a French team tracksuit.
Then he would wax lyrical about a Bolivian back row forward better known as Che Guevara, on which Cormier became arguably the world’s leading authority based on the biographies of the Marxist revolutionary. Cormier on song could switch seamlessly to another back row forward from another country. “Of course, I saved the French team from the wooden spoon in 1982,” he would say without a trace of bombast. “You know that, don’t you? No? But it’s true. You know Willie Duggan?”
Cormier never wrote the story. In more tolerant times, when reporters and players mixed officially, ‘Jeannot’ was the daddy of them all. Ireland having arrived on the Thursday, he arranged to take two old pals, Duggan and Fergus Slattery, out on the town.
Ireland, then as now, were celebrated guests. They’d won the Triple Crown, their first since 1949, four weeks earlier. France, in contrast, had lost all three of their games under Jean-Pierre Rives, whose mass of blond hair inspired Cormier to describe him as ‘the man with the golden helmet.’
No ulterior motive ever got in the way of his natural bonhomie but the undeniable fact of the story was that by the time two-thirds of the Irish back row made it back to their hotel, one-third had been counted out.
Duggan’s old-fashioned attempt to settle an altercation with a taxi driver left him with a broken hand. The official party line over the late promotion of the uncapped Ronan Kearney of Wanderers, was that Duggan had been injured in a fall.
“We’d won the Triple Crown beating Scotland in the previous match and then there was a four-week gap before the last one in Paris,” Slattery said. “We had two-or-three days celebrations after the Scottish win and then there were more celebrations after that. I’d known Jean for a while. He was always a very straight guy and always good craic. I really enjoyed his company. I went out with him a few times on the Thursday night before a game to a typical Cormier kind of function and Willie came as well. Some ruckah happened and I wasn’t present when he had his hand broken. By the time I got there, it was all over. As for the game, we lost. I thought we were crap. Jean was a unique guy, different from the rest. I kept in touch, as many players did. I went to see him when I was over for the Paris game at the start of the last Six Nations and you could see he wasn’t well. He’ll be greatly missed.”
Above all, Cormier was a terrific human being, always ready to help those less fortunate. In a restaurant in Pretoria during a French tour of South Africa, he left his seat and headed for the kitchen.
“We wondered what he was doing,” a colleague remembered. “Then he brought all the black workers out of the kitchen to have dinner with us at our table. That’s the kind of man he was, always helping others and to hell with the cost.’’
Of all the tributes from the French greats of yesteryear, Serge Blanco’s struck a chord, chiming with Cormier’s innate sense of fun: “He was a friend, an accomplice…’’
Castres pair’s punishment comes too late for Munster
So now we know what we suspected at the time: that Munster were victims of a miscarriage of justice in France last Saturday night. A Champions’ Cup tribunal ruled that Castres scrum-half Rory Kockott and hooker Marc-Antoine Rallier should both have been sent off.
The referee, Wayne Barnes of England, failed to do so, in Kockott’s case despite Munster captain Peter O’Mahony alleging that his fellow back rower, Chris Cloete, had been gouged. Why was the incident not reviewed at the time?
Having already been given one yellow card, Kockott would have been lucky to stay on the field given that two yellows equal a red.
Now he has been suspended for three weeks and Rallier for one week, and yet Munster are made to suffer because justice wasn’t done at the scene of the crime.
An away quarter-final is a potentially crippling to price to pay.
Exiles head for home but where’s Irish heart?
There was a time when London Irish left nobody in any doubt as to their identity, a friendly rugby club playing in London and going out of their way to provide a home from home for those newly-arrived in England from either side of the Irish border.
The club’s annual dinner in the dog days of amateurism was not to be missed, like the one at a swish west end hotel when the guest speaker Noel Henderson, the celebrated Irish Lion from the rugby-forsaken city of Derry, chose a song for his encore:
Like the amateur era and the Exiles from London, Noel is sadly long gone, in his case two years after the sport declared itself open to pay players from 1995 and one year before the professional wing of the Irish took flight 30 miles west and landed in Reading.
Traditionalists, no matter how endangered as a species, will welcome news of the club’s proposed return to their spiritual home in west London, not at Sunbury but sharing Brentford FC’s new 17,500-seater stadium from 2020.
That at least addresses the London bit. As for the Irish part, that seems more difficult. Director of Rugby Declan Kidney is from Cork but of the 41-strong squad listed at the start of the season back in the English second tier, 39 are from England (14), Australia (6), Scotland, Samoa (4 each), South Africa (3), New Zealand, Fiji (two each) plus one from Zimbabwe, USA, Canada, and Italy. The Irish representation, at the start of the season at least, was down to ex-Leinster and ex-Ireland U20s: centre Brendan Macken and back row forward Conor Gilsenan.
And that from a club whose roll call of Irish internationals included Lions — Tony O’Reilly, Robin Thompson, Ken Kennedy, John O’Driscoll, Brendan Mullin and Rob Henderson.
Unions show how forward planning should work
Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and Wales have made commendably early decisions to remove any doubt about their succession planning post-World Cup. Those steering all four contenders towards Japan have given notice to quit as head coaches once the tournament is over.
While most pundits applaud them for pre-empting any distractions, Clive Woodward has fired a broadside at all four.
“Making this publicly known is a huge mistake,’’ he wrote in his newspaper column. “Having zero distraction is key but this is a major distraction for the coach, team, and country. Who is going to be in charge next?”
In respect of Ireland and Wales, the answers are there for the world to see — Andy Farrell and Wayne Pivac. While Farrell considers the possibility of rejoining forces with ex-England head coach under an all-Ireland banner, Pivac has named two Welshmen in his team — Scarlets’ attack coach Stephen Jones and Glasgow forwards expert Jonathan Humphreys.
As for the All Blacks, they have made their position crystal clear: Steve Hansen will be standing down after the World Cup which coincides with the end of their season and only then will they consider his successor.
Rassie Erasmus will do likewise as Springbok head coach to revert to the position which he left Munster for: director of rugby.
Again there is no need to rush into picking his successor.