From Nelson to Charles de Gaulle – Le Crunch, La dixième édition
Two great names from history, Horatio Nelson and Charles de Gaulle linked through rugby, but how?
Side by side. The Royal Navy and the Marine Nationale, an entente cordial
Like the alphabet it starts with A, B, C and a step back to 2005. It might not be the first thought in terms of celebrating 200 years of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar to invite the French but that is what happened in 2005. The RNRU’s Council Member, Judge Jeff Blackett, persuaded the RFU that a match between the Royal Navy and France’s Marine Nationale would be the perfect prelude to the Six Nations international between England and France, and also appropriate rugby recognition of the bicentenary of Nelson’s great victory. Ideas are fine but it took two others, Chris Alcock and Thierry Calmon to make it happen.
Thierry Calmon, who with Chris Alcock and Jeff Blackett ensured the first match took place
The two are good friends who both share the same attitude of ‘we can do this, it’s not a problem’ and they drove the idea to fruition. After a long break Royal Navy rugby against the French resumed. The Twickenham component unfortunately did not materialized, as heavy rain during the week forced the match to be moved next door to the Army’s School of Music at Kneller Hall. However, huddled under umbrellas, a dedicated crowd of approaching four hundred watched a home win by 20 – 5. It was clear that rugby in the Royal Navy was a step ahead of the embryonic organization in the Marine Nationale. What the long-term future might hold was unknown but what was agreed was a return match in Paris the following year.
Springtime in Paris. 2006 and high hopes of a second Royal Navy victory. Nothing in the early exchanges suggested otherwise. However the forty minutes after half time turned the course of both the game and the future of the competition. A chance try from the French left winger lifted Gallic spirits, another penalty closed the gap, some discord in the Away side’s ranks and gradually the tide turned. By the final whistle the series was levelled and the match won 26-21. The game, hosted at Houilles on the outskirts of Paris, had been played in beautiful sunshine and as is so often the case, the French had brought a certain joire de vivre to both the pre match and post match activities. Alcock, Blackett and Calmon were on hand, the initial idea was reality; the acorn had become a young, healthy sapling showing great potential for the future.
Pitch side refreshment French style, complete with the Babcock International Trophy in choux pastry
Home to Pompey. With lessons learnt from ’05 the third match was held at US Portsmouth and it was soon evident that there had been rapid progress by Marine Nationale. They thundered in to the Royal Navy and for much of the game were the better side. They were rewarded with the only try of the game but ill-discipline cost them victory, 12-8, as Dave Pascoe landed four penalties. The near miss raised their expectations and a decision was taken to move their next home match to the Stade Jean Buin, home of Stade Francais, with the after match dinner hosted at the Parc De Princes, the spiritual home of French International rugby. Again it was Marine Nationale who had much of the play, but they were undone by a moment of brilliance by winger, Josh Drauniniu, and some good old fashioned Royal Navy belligerence from replacement prop, Dave Turner.
Josh Drauniniu slices through the Marine Nationale defence
If Josh’s play enabled the Royal Navy to establish the lead, it was Dave Turner’s scrummaging that closed the match out. Reduced to fourteen through a Yellow Card the Marine Nationale had a series of 5 metre scrums. Try as they might, they could not get the forward momentum they required, and when they eventually did move the ball, the opportunity was thwarted through the determined tackling of Parker and Dennis in the backrow. These two, along with Navy captain, Will Pilkington, had tackled themselves to a standstill all night but their efforts allowed Will to lift the trophy aloft following an 18-13 away victory.
The series comes of age. 2009 was the first occasion where the match was played in the same venue for a second time. The French travelled with high hopes and there was a real air of anticipation before the match. The good home support in Pompey was challenged when 100 French matelot’s marched into US Portsmouth in full uniform and full voice.
Sailors from the Flamant gave the US Portsmouth atmosphere a Gallic twist
The anthems for the first time, seemed to be part of the impending contest. La Marseillaise was repelled by a raucous, if not totally tuneful, edition of God Save the Queen. And so to the game. A classic. Both sides playing flowing rugby. Nine tries scored and the Royal Navy fought back from being 10-15 down at half time to sneak the match 31-27.
Calum Macrae supported by Greg Barden in a pulsating game of nine tries.
Bring Him Home. The match, through the French, had become billed as ‘Le Crunch’ following the lead of the England France encounters. If the Parc to Prince was the spiritual home of French International rugby, in 2010 the Marine Nationale moved the game to their spiritual home, the Mediterranean Naval base town of Toulon. The match was now firmly in the heartland of French rugby where it could feed off the culture that is ingrained in to the psyche of all French players, the importance of the matches that are ‘a domicile’. It does not easily translate across the Channel but in the South of France, when you play at home, you play for more than just the win, the team represents the soul of the community and it is put on the line at every home match. The Royal Navy travelled to Toulon unsure on what to expect.
Welcome to Toulon
The first clue was probably the town buses advertising ‘Le Crunch’. Eight foot high pictures of Navy prop Kyle Mason beaming down at unsuspecting car drivers imploring the locals to travel to the Stade Mayol and help repel the visiting Royal Navy. The second clue was the East stand at kick-off. Crammed full of Marine Nationale personnel, in rig, and creating an intimidating atmosphere. God Save the Queen was sung, La Marseillaise was performed; it was theatre. Passionate, powerful emotional – it lasted well in to the match.
The Marine Nationale’s supporters took over Stade Mayol’s East stand
From the very first whistle the tone was set by the Marine Nationale fly half Caminatti. How high could he kick that ball. As the ball began to return to earth the crescendo of noise rose and Royal Navy defenders were swept aside by a wave of Marine Nationale fervour. 29 – 3 and it could have been more. A record victory and well deserved. For the Royal Navy it was a hard lesson in how to play rugby in the South, but the strongest steel is often forged from the most intense furnace, and seven weeks later sixteen of that team, humbled in France, lifted the first Royal Navy Inter Service crown for nine years. “Acclamations nos amis à travers la Manche”.
Historic Recognition. The Toulon match was to have a profound effect on Royal Navy Rugby. At that year’s Annual General Meeting the Union acknowledged the continuing rise of Marine Nationale rugby by deciding that from the 2011 match, to be held at Plymouth Albion’s Brickfields ground, they would award caps. On the 31 March 2011 Ian Cooper, Sam Laird, Nial Copeland and Tom Evans-Jones all won their first caps for the Royal Navy Rugby Union. The first time since 1920 that a cap had been awarded for a match other than those against the Army or Royal Air Force. Another landmark was achieved during the afternoon, when the two Navies competed against each other with a Women’s 12-a-side match. Though the French won this encounter comfortably, in the evening game it was to be Josh Drauniniu who once more broke their hearts. His try was the difference in the Royal Navy’s 17-10 victory.
Making history. Ian Cooper, Tom Evans-Jones, Sam Laird and Nial Copelenad in their ‘new caps’
The run of home victories was to continue for the next two years. Again Toulon proved to be an advantageous home for the Marine Nationale. Their 24 – 3 win becoming the second highest winning margin after the 2010 game. This time it was scrum half Magnani that provided the control and inspiration for the victory, jubilantly celebrated by another large and vocal partisan crowd. As before, though, the French were unable to follow up with a win away from home. US Portsmouth were again the host last season and a comfortable Royal Navy victory 21 – 10 thanks to two tries from hooker Ben Priddey and fullback Jon Humphrey.
Le Petit General. For those of a certain vintage, French international rugby was epitomized by Jacques Fouroux, le petit general. An honour bestowed upon the scrum half by an adoring public and a player totally respected by his peers. Within the Marine Nationale there lurks, ‘le petit amiral’, Jean-Claude Soulé. In recent years the driving force behind the team, he has always kept the Marine Nationale side moving forward. His inspired decision to move the match to Toulon has lifted the Babcock International Challenge to a new level. Toulon has produced a crowd second only to the Army Navy match at Twickenham in terms of size and emotion.
'Le Petit Amiral’ – Jean-Claude Solue is lifted aloft with the Babcock International Trophy by the winning Marine Nationale team
The Royal Navy team now travel to the venue knowing what to expect on the pitch. A fierce encounter with a combative mix of passion and power. Nothing asked, nothing given. In two games at Stade Mayol, the Royal Navy have yet to score a try. Though they lead the series 6-3 to achieve only the second away win will be a significant milestone in Royal Navy rugby. However Jean-Claude does not only deliver the warmest of welcomes on the pitch. Pre match the sponsors are well looked after, a very important part of the modern game. Whilst post match the team dine together on board a French Navy warship. In 2010 and 2012 the amphibious assault ship, Mistral, superbly hosted both teams. This year France’s flagship, the nuclear powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, is alongside in her homeport and will host the post match meal. What would Nelson have made of such a vessel?
The Royal Navy Women will also be in Toulon for a return visit. The Marine Nationale (F) lead the series 3 - 0
So from the substitute venue of Kneller Hall, the seed of an idea is now an established part of the fixture list. Like the mighty oak the fixture stands proud, comfortable in its own identity. What the next ten years of fixtures will bring is hard to predict. However, for the here and now, the task is one that generations of Royal Navy rugby players would understand and appreciate. To enter the Stade Mayol, to face down the Pilou Pilou, to rise above La Marseillaise will require a performance that brings skill and pride onto the pitch. Sunshine on the South coast will no doubt bring liberation to the French player, ‘the free French’ epitomized by Charles de Gaulle himself. The Royal Navy will travel with ‘Heart of Oak’ as true today as in 1805. Le Crunch, a decade of rivalry and rugby between the fiercest of friends.
Le Crunch, La dixième edition. From Kneller Hall to Stade Mayol
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
Chris Alcock meets the players in 2012. Apart from the warmth, the sunshine and the 10,000 crowd he could have thought he was still at Kneller Hall!
Article by Geraint Ashton Jones
Images by Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones; © Tania Ashton Jones & © Marine Nationale