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France offer parting shot to England
Huw Richards
March 6, 2009
England's Joe Worsley is tackled by France's Frederic Michalak, England v France, Rugby World Cup warm-up match, Twickenham, England, August 11, 2007
England's Joe Worsley is tackled by France's Frederic Michalak during the side's last clash at Twickenham in the summer of 2007 © Getty Images

Whatever tensions may be generated by the forthcoming England v France match - and the Ides of March looks an ill-omened date for a contest that is invariably charged - at least both teams can be tolerably certain that the fixture will be played again next year.

That wasn't the case in 1931. Indeed as the two teams ran out on Easter Monday, April 6, at the Stade Colombes they knew it was pretty certain that the fixture would not be played the following year.

French rugby's disarray had been brought to a head in January by the secession of 15 leading clubs, who formed the Union Francaise de Rugby Amateur (UFRA). While the French Rugby Federation took a notably conciliatory line towards the secessionists - allowing their clubs to continue in the championship and picking their players for France - it was also the cue that the Home Unions needed to act on their concerns about violence and non-too-veiled professionalism in the French game.

On February 13, they voted to exclude France from the championship, a decision that was communicated on March 2. France did not take the decision lying down - appeals and protests went as far as diplomatic circles, with the two foreign offices in communication - but to no avail.

While not quite so jeopardised as the cricket team who were turned back from a visit to Paris in 1789, the England team might reasonably have felt that the decision could have been better timed as they ran out to a chorus of boos on April 6. Ireland and Scotland might be British rugby's true puritans on amateurism, but the RFU's was still the loudest and most influential voice in the game and there was little doubt who French fans would feel were most to blame for the exile. The jeering continued for most of the match.

Nor is it any surprise that France played like a team with something to prove - but happily they channelled their frustration into good rugby rather than violence. France went out with a bang, winning a terrific match in which England led three times 14-13. It meant that, for only the third time in 17 seasons, they won as many matches as they lost while England went winless for the first time since 1905, claiming their first Wooden Spoon since the championship had been extended in 1910.

Under modern scoring values England would have won 19-16. They scored three tries to France's two, and also converted two of them. But under the system still in force in 1931, France's two drop-goals counted for four points each, against three for the tries.

In an age where international teams shuffled personnel at a pace even Marc Lievremont might consider excessive, there were only nine survivors - four French and five English - from the previous year's meeting at Twickenham.

Each of the French quartet, three of whom had also played in their only previous victory over England in 1927, contributed significantly to the victory. The team was captained by Eugen Ribere, a magnificent all-round back-rower who was winning his 30th cap. Ribere played for Quillan, the village club funded by a local hat-making magnate whose recruitment of a top-class team - French champions in 1929 and finalists in 1928 and 1930 - symbolised the time. But if his strict amateurism was in question, his sportsmanship was not. He was admired not only for his skills as a player, but his rejection of dirty play.

France's first drop-goal was landed from 40 metres - some feat with a leather boots and ball - by Toulon centre Marcel Baillette. One of the two tries was contributed by Villeneuve second row Jean Galia, destined a few years later to be the founding father of French rugby league. And the decisive blow, a low-trajectory drop goal reclaiming the lead for a third and final time, was struck by Racing Club centre Georges Gerald.

"But if his strict amateurism was in question, his sportsmanship was not. He was admired not only for his skills as a player, but his rejection of dirty play."

The after-match dinner might have created further diplomatic ructions. The English players misbehaved, RFU vice-president Adrian Stoop made an interminable speech and the tension was only defused by skipper Carl Aarvold who was, in the words of reporter E.W.Swanton 'not only gracious in defeat, but fluent in French, a rare combination'.

It was not only the end for France. Welsh referee Albert Freethy, who disallowed two English tries, took charge of his 18th and last international after a career that included five consecutive France v England matches stretching back to 1923, Test rugby's first sending-off - All Black Cyril Brownlie at Twickenham in 1925 - and the last ever Olympic final, in which USA beat France at the Colombes in 1924.

Ten of the Englishmen were omitted from their next match - against South Africa in January 1932 - and five of them did not play for England again. Among the five who did play against the Boks, Aarvold and John Tallent, a try-scorer in Paris, both went on to be presidents of the RFU. Among the quintet who did get a recall, in one case as late as 1936, front-rowers Henry Rew and Brian Black were both to be war victims.

The most crowded career of all was to be enjoyed by one of the five permanent discards, Peter Howard who within a decade would have been one of Sir Oswald Mosley's senior aides, a Winter Olympian and co-author, with Michael Foot, of the famous polemic 'Guilty Men'.

France departed for a decade spent mostly playing Germany, setting up the Federation International de Rugby Amateur (FIRA) and, from 1934, losing out heavily to rugby league. They returned in 1947 and, in spite of some sticky moments in the 1950s, have become not only undisputed contestants but by far the most consistently successful championship competitor, an outcome that looked a long way away on April 6, 1931.

Huw Richards is a respected rugby journalist and author and a regular contributor to
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