The Breakdown | René Crabos, the Napoleon of rugby, pioneered France’s enduring flair
Gabriel Ibitoye, who last summer joined Agen from Harlequins, was asked recently whether he felt he had made the right move in swapping England for France. The wing is likely to be elsewhere next season with his club bottom of the Top 14 without a win in 14 rounds and 20 points away from safety, but he will take some tempting back to the Premiership.
“English rugby, in my opinion, is more structured,” he said. “Here, when I get the ball, I look up and think what the defenders are doing and how do I beat them. Players can create something out of nothing and it highlights individual brilliance. I think French rugby is more suited to me.”
He was speaking before the last few rounds of the Premiership when inhibition has been cast aside, most notably in the romp between Bath and Wasps which resembled an end-of-season match that had got out of hand. It is as if all the changes enforced by the pandemic has weakened the control of coaches and the decision to leave the next two weekends fallow looks a missed opportunity.
It was not always Ibitoye’s way in France, although you have to go back a bit to a time when a spectator at a Test match would be called on to play. It was 100 years ago next weekend that they opened their Five Nations campaign with a 3-0 victory over Scotland in Inverleith, the first time they had won back-to-back matches in the tournament after their final match in the 1920 campaign resulted in their maiden away victory, in Dublin against Ireland when they scored five unconverted tries. Their lack of success on the road was not surprising: most trips required players based in the south of the country to leave home on Monday for a Saturday fixture.
Leading them for the first time against Scotland was the centre René Crabos, one of the pioneers of French rugby on and off the field: as an administrator, he tried to promote emerging nations. He had played in Dublin and was the architect of the more attacking style that was to showcase the natural flair of the French and exploit the pace they had in the back three.
Before the victory in Dublin, France had lost 17 consecutive matches in the Five Nations, their only victory coming against Scotland at Stade Colombes in 1911. Their last two matches before the first world war shut down the tournament were heavy defeats to Wales and England when they conceded 31 and 39 points respectively, but their three opening losses in 1920 were by a combined total of nine points.
They had become a different side, more organised thanks to Crabos and relying far less on chance. Ireland had also lost their first three matches and France were, said their captain, Philippe Struxiano, set on avoiding the wooden spoon for only the second time. In Eugène Billac, the fly-half who was to score the only try of the match against Scotland the following year, Crabos, Adolphe Jauréguy, François Borde and Jean Clement, they had backs whose flair was to earn them national fame and transform the French game.
Only one player from the 1914 side was involved in 1920, the Toulouse prop and occasional second-row Marcel-Frédéric Lubin-Lebrère, who was a survivor in more than one sense. Left for dead after being shot 14 times during the Somme, he was taken captive by the Germans. When he returned home, he had lost the sight in one eye.
He was arrested the night before the match in Dublin, along with his teammates Théophile Cambre and Jean Sébédio, for singing revolutionary songs in a pub with sympathisers of the IRA at a time of the Irish war of independence. They were released in time to play on a rainy day in April when France made light of the conditions to win 15-7.
In 1920, France had 173 clubs; by the start of the next decade the number had swelled to 784. The growing competitiveness of the national side was a trigger: between 1920 and 1931, Les Bleus recorded 11 victories and two draws, one at Twickenham in 1922, and 35 defeats.
So was the burgeoning French league which was dominated by Toulouse in the first half of the 1920s. One critic said while international rugby inspired the love of supporters, it was the club game that stoked their passion. It was to lead to France’s exile from the sport in the 1930s for various breaches of the amateur regulations as clubs used inducements to build their squads, much to the disgust of the home unions.
If French rugby has in the professional era become known for its regular disputes between club and country, the latest of which last autumn resulted in France not being able to select a full-strength side throughout the Nations Cup, they started in the 1920s: the centre Roger Ramis was regarded as one of the best centres of the decade, but preferred to play for Perpignan and led them to the 1925 title. He was far from alone at a time when some earned their livings from the club game.
It was Crabos who inspired France’s improvement on the field. He was known as the Napoleon of rugby because of his strategical prowess. He only won 17 caps, although that would compare to at least 50 today with virtually three times as many internationals held each year, and after the second world war, he became the president of the French Rugby Federation.
He and Lubin-Lebrère were in the side that defeated the Olympic champions the United States 14-5 in Paris in October 1920. Billac scored one of their four tries that day and he became the first of several daredevil French fly-halves, starting an enduring elan.
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