The last French final before the war to end all wars
May 2, 2014
The 1914 Perpignan side © Scrum.com
It was, reckoned the rugby chronicler Paul Voivenel in the 1940s, "the most dramatic of all finals". Other French finals in the seven decades since Voivenel wrote those words might be cited to contest that verdict, but there is no doubt that the final of 1914 - the last significant rugby match played in Europe before the outbreak of the First World War - left plenty of memories to cherish across the four years of hostilities and beyond.
The meeting of AS Perpignan and Stadoceste Tarbais at the Stade Ponts-Jumeaux, Toulouse on May 3 1914 was a clash of first-time finalists which offered tension, controversy, heroic resistance and far too many players for whom this would prove their last big match as well as their first.
Perpignan and Tarbes rose into something of a power vacuum in French rugby. The strength of the Paris pioneers was waning, Toulouse was not yet the power it would become in the 1920s and the great Stade Bordelais club had been cut down to size by official sanctions for too-obvious professionalism.
Aviron Bayonnais, with their spectacular campaign of 1913, was the first to claim the space, but there were other live contenders. In a competition whose early stages were contested on a provincial basis, Perpignan had become a perennial challenger, winning ten Languedoc champions in the 10 seasons up to 1914.
Its progress through the playoff stages had an epic quality. Beating Toulon 25-0 got it through to a four-team semi-final pool in which Le Havre were punch bags; reigning champions Bayonne and 1912 winners Toulouse assuredly were not. When the trio tied for first place, lots were drawn, with the result that Bayonne and Perpignan played off for the right to face Toulouse in a final eliminator.
That match would be immortalised by Voivenel as 'the King of Matches', a ferocious contest which went to two 10-minute periods of extra time before concluding in a 6-6 draw. The replay the following week was almost as tense, a try by Perpignan captain Felix Barbe, a centre, giving the Catalans a 3-0 win. A 5-0 win over Toulouse took Perpignan to the final.
Stade Tarbais in 1914 © Agence Rol
Tarbes, by contrast, had a serene progress to the final - defeating Perigueux in the first round of the playoffs then seeing off Stade Bordelais, Racing Club and Grenoble without conceding a point. They had talent to burn - six international players to Perpignan's none - and could afford to omit rising stars Jean Sebedio and Aime Cassayet. They also fielded a genuine curiosity, a back row who were all postal workers.
Sources vary as to the size of the crowd. There may have been 10, 15 or even 20 thousand at the Ponts-Jumeaux. But all agree that it was a beautiful day, and one on which Tarbes apparent advantage rapidly evaporated.
Within the first few minutes Perpignan forward Jean Roques went down in a heap and referee Charles Gondouin - a man possessing the odd sporting distinction of a silver medal for the tug of war at the 1900 Olympics - sent off Tarbes hooker Felix Faure. Tarbes felt that Roques had play-acted, and their mood was not improved when they lost a second front rower, their captain Rene Duffour, with a broken rib before the game was a quarter over.
Down to 13, and only six forwards, Tarbes should have been doomed. But roared on by their own fans and the neutrals who felt naturally drawn towards their plight, they resisted heroically. Veteran full-back Jean Caujolle - a veteran described by one website as 'one of France's first shamateurs' because of the mock-job he had been given in a Tarbes bank - played as well as he ever had, with back row Paul Galliay and scrum-half and captain Guillaume Latterade also getting themselves noticed by Voivenel.
Tarbes dominated a first half which ended scoreless, and maintained their control into the third quarter, taking the lead when prop Jean Lastagaray dived over from close range. A few minutes later outside-half Amedee Gardeix dropped a goal - worth four points compared to three for a try at this time - and Tarbes led 7-0.
But inevitably Tarbes tired. Perpignan wing Paul Serre kicked ahead and as a number of players converged in-goal back row Joseph Lida - some sources say second row Francois Naute - touched down to cut the deficit to 7-3. Perpignan attacked and attacked, but with four minutes to go were still being held at bay.
Perpignan's Aime Giral whose name lives on at their stadium © Agence Rol
Then wing Joseph Amilhau sent Barbe clear. The centre made it to the line, but only at the price of touching down close to the corner flag. Perpignan's outside-half Aime Giral, an 18 and a half year old schoolboy, had missed the simple conversion of the first try, and now amid "a cathedral-like silence", kicked from the touchline. His aim was true, and Perpignan had the extra points which made it French champion for the first time.
Giral completed his baccalaureate a month later and intended to study architecture. Instead by the autumn he was in the uniform of the 10th Infantry Regiment and, a little over a year later, on July 2 1915 and still not yet 20, he was dead of wounds suffered on the western front. His memory lives on in the name of Perpignan's stadium.
He had already outlived five of his team-mates, all of whom died before the end of the year in which they became champions of France. Hooker Raymond Schuller died on August 20 and lock Maurice Graves exactly a month later. Giral's half-back partner Francois Fournie was killed on September 24 then Lida and Naute, the two claimants to Perpignan's first try, fell within a few days of each other in early November. Nor was Perpignan's toll completed with the loss of Giral. Full-back Joseph Couffe was killed in September 1915. Barbe, the oldest man in the team, was also the last survivor, dying at the age of 96 in 1982.
Tarbes war toll, like their injuries in the final, fell heaviest on the front row. Faure proved doubly ill-fated, dying in 1916 after losing a leg to his wounds, but not before making an immense impression as a fighting soldier. The try-scorer Latagaray, a professional soldier, fell in 1917. As with Perpignan, the captain and oldest man in the team was also the last survivor. Duffour, the other front-rower, lived into his nineties and until 1976. Tarbes other war victim was the outside-half Jean Pourteau.
Theirs were not the only deaths associated with the final. Rowland Griffiths, the Welshman who had played for Newport and the 1908 Anglo-Welsh team before coaching Perpignan in 1912 and 1913, died of typhoid in a Marseilles hospital the day after his former charges took their first title.
Tarbes and Perpignan remained among the strongest clubs in France after the war. They met in the semi-final pool in the first post-war championship in 1920, Tarbes winning 16-8 after a replay, then going on to take their first title by beating Racing Club 8-3. In 1921 they were in opposite semi-final pools and this time it was Tarbes who were eliminated, going down to Toulouse, who in turn were beaten 5-0 in the final by Perpignan.
Many of the surviving veterans of the 1914 final were still only in their early thirties or younger. Yet only one of them returned to play in those post-war finals - Paul Galliay, one of Tarbes postal breakaway trio, who was both captain and try-scorer when they took the first post-war title by beating Racing Club.
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