The first great French team
April 8, 2011
Stade Bordelais won the Bouclier de Brennus on seven occasions between 1899 and 1911 © NotreCinema
On a weekend when, for the second season running, French teams occupy half of the places in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, there is an appropriate anniversary. It was 100 years ago on Friday, April 8, 1911, when the first great French club team won its last title.
Stade Bordelais beat the Parisians of SCUF (Sporting Club Universitaire de France) 14-0 in fine conditions on familiar ground, Stade du Bouscat on the outskirts of Bordeaux. It was not exactly a surprise result. SCUF, a club founded by Charles Brennus, the official who gave his name to the Bouclier de Brennus awarded to French champions, were playing in their first final.
Bordelais were playing in their 12th in the space of 13 years since they became the first provincial club to play in - and win - a final in 1899. They had already won six titles, including four in a row between 1904 and 1907.
Every one of those four consecutive victories was against Stade Francais, a long drawn out revenge for the final of 1901 - one of the years that got away from Bordelais, but not as a result of losing. They had won the final 3-0, but it was then discovered that three of their players were not eligible. They refused the replay ordered by the USFSA, the amateur sports federation that ran French rugby before the formation of the FFR in 1919, and the trophy was awarded to the Parisians.
Bordelais represented a fusion of the forces that drove the development of French rugby in its early days. There was a strong British influence - reflecting the city's role as a trading port. The first president, JJ Shearer, was a Scottish shipping magnate and the club also had a fair number of British players, including Cyril Rutherford, the Scot who was one of the most influential administrators of the French game, and coaches.
At the same time the locally-based Ligue Girondine de l'Education Physique, created by Philip Tissie, one of the strongest of the physical culture organisations that proliferated in France as a reaction to defeat by the Prussians in the war of 1870, created a local sporting culture that developed a stream of rugby players. Based in a university city, Bordelais could also draw on the energies of the student body.
It made them tough to beat. As Paul Voivenel, chronicler of the early days of Toulouse rugby, recalled "Bordelais always beat us". In years when the final was between the best Parisian team and the best of the provinces, Bordelais fell only once to a provincial adversary, defeated in 1903 by Voivenel's SOET, a forerunner of Stade Toulousain, who in turn lost to Stade Francais.
Toulousain came on the scene in 1907 and reached the final two years later, meeting Bordelais in the first ever all-provincial final, hailed in the local press as revenge 'for the unjustified humiliations Paris believes it can inflict'. Bordelais did a little of their own inflicting, beating the comparative upstarts 17-0 on their own ground.
Among the stars of that hammering was wing Maurice Leuville, who scored two tries. By 1911 Leuville was captain and - in a reflection of the rather more fluid attitude to playing roles seen in the early days of the game - playing at No.8. Leuville, second row Marcel Lafitte, who was playing his ninth final after a career spent mostly in the front row, fullback Henri Martin, playing his sixth and threequarter Maurice 'Souris' Bruneau, who was playing his eighth final and pursuing a sixth winners medal, were the veterans in a team full of fresh young talent - none younger than centre Emile Stahl, still three months short of his 19th birthday.
While Henri Garcia records that 'decline was not far away' after they beat Toulouse in that 1909 final, this would not have been obvious to contemporaries. Bordelais made it to the 1910 final, losing to Lyon, and in 1911 were as dominant as they had ever been, scoring 511 points to 83 in their 22 matches.
There was certainly little doubt about the outcome in 1911 with tries from half-backs Jean Anouilh and Fernand Perens, wing Julien Duffau and centre Daniel Ihingoue plus a conversion by back-row Maurice Boyau seeing off SCUF with a great deal to spare.
Any of the 16,000 spectators at Le Bouscat would have been amazed to learn that this apparently irresistible force would not add to its list of trophies over the next 100 years. So what happened? One is that competition grew, with far more clubs in contention for trophies. Toulouse made their breakthrough in 1912, followed by a truly great Aviron Bayonnais team in 1913 and Perpignan in the last season before the war.
The war took a fearsome toll, even by the standards exacted on Frenchmen born in the late nineteenth century, on the team of 1911. Five of them died on war service, with only Anouilh of the points scorers surviving. Boyau became one of France's leading fighter aces, with 35 kills before he himself was shot down in 1918, his name immortalised in Dax's stadium.
Boyau was, though, only the second most famous person associated with the 1911 team. Leuville's younger brother, Gabriel-Maximilien went into the theatre, changed his name to Max Linder and became continental Europe's answer to Charlie Chaplin, one of the silent stars commemorated in a recent film by comedian Paul Merton.
But the point at which Bordelais' decline was sealed surely came before 1914. Early practitioners of the distinctive form of amateurism developed by the French game, Bordelais were rash enough to send coach William Priest to Wales to offer paid work to the right outside-half, and compounded the offence by placing an advert in the Scottish press.
This was roughly the equivalent of seeking a marriage annulment through the columns of the Osservatore Romano. The Scottish Rugby Union, and high priest James Aiken Smith, inevitably got to know about it and a complaint was despatched to Paris.
Rutherford and Allen Muhr, an American who played in the first French national teams, were sent to investigate and on December 24, 1912 announced their findings. Bordelais' leading officials were suspended, along with coach Priest.
It was Toulouse, who won five titles in six years between 1922 and 1927, rather than Bordeaux that became the capital of French rugby. A semi-final in the last of those years, and a 34-6 defeat by Toulouse, was as near as Bordelais have come since.
Their best post-war performance, in an era when they helped make up the numbers in France's vast First Division, but increasingly failed to hold on to even that status, was reaching the last 16 in 1963, going down 3-0 to Cahors.
Suburban club Begles became the dominant force, winning a championship in 1991 on the back of a fearsome pack and a combative scrum-half named Bernard Laporte, before themselves going into severe decline. The two clubs merged in 2006 and have become a fixture at Pro D2 level, generally more struggler than contender.
Until, that is, this season. Bordeaux-Begles currently stand fourth in the Pro D2 with four matches to go, with a serious shot at the promotion play-offs and a return to French rugby's top flight. But even if they remain among France's also-runs, they have an honoured and vital place in its rugby history. As Phil Dine wrote in his magnificent French Rugby Football: A Cultural History, Bordelais were the bridge between the Paris-dominated game of the early days and the provincial vibrancy that followed, "A model and a catalyst for the spread of the union game throughout the south-west."
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