Liberté, égalité, fraternité – Le Crunch 2016 - a very modern rivalry
To accept an invitation to play a rugby match against the Royal Navy on the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and then, two years later, to toast your opponents in a wardroom named after Admiral Nelson takes a certain self confidence in your own identity. In those early matches, the Marine Nationale made no apology that they were learning about the organisation of Navy Rugby and keen to advance on and off the pitch. Last season the Marine Nationale confirmed the success of their progress with a first win away from home and if they can back this up then they will level the series six all. Repeated Inter Service Champions in France they have become the ideal adversaries in the build up to the Royal Navy’s UK Inter Service preparations. Always difficult opponents, since the move to their citadel, the Stade Mayol, in Toulon, they have been formidable.
For many the choice of Toulon was inspired in purely rugby terms. The home of multi European cup winning RC Toulon, the stadium is a cauldron of hostility for away teams. For Le Crunch, the Marine Nationale continue the Toulonnais traditions, and the partisan local chants reign down from the steep concrete stands, the hors d’oeuvres is their own version of the haka. The Pilou Pilou galvanises the home side ready for the battle to commence and is followed by the spine tingling anthem, La Marseillaise. If, as an away team, you are unable to start well the crowd will remain in raucous voice for the full eighty minutes lifting their team to greater heights.
However, Toulon is also the spiritual home of the Marine Nationale, their main southern base, and in many ways the spiritual home of modern France. The well documented siege of Toulon, where the Royal Navy’s Admiral Hood played a large and ultimately unsuccessful role, is often considered to be the darkest hour in the birth of the French Republic, it brought to the fore Napolean Boneparte and of course the lead up to the Battle of Trafalgar! For France it spawned liberté, égalité, fraternité which is still today found of the Great Seal of France. It was a period which saw the Declaration of the Rights of Man, closely followed by the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, which espoused the freedoms that today sees women at sea and of course is celebrated with the match between the MN Feminines and the RN Women for the Entente Cordial Trophy. A visit to Toulon is to travel to the very heart of modern French culture, a journey that continues in modern politics across Europe and indeed in a certain forthcoming referendum. But it is not the politics that is in their minds when the home supporters raise voice with the opening of La Marseillaise:
“Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le Jour de glorie est arrive!”
‘Arise, children of our Nation. The day of glory has arrived!’
But whose glory? The Royal Navy have yet to taste success in Toulon and perhaps they need look no further than France’s own Great Seal – liberté, égalité, fraternité. This season has seen the Royal Navy play with a freedom that has to be admired. Everyone in the squad has played their part with the younger players being integrated and bringing their own joie de vivre to the Senior XV’s rugby, a freedom of expression borne from their own Inter Service success. All have been equal in the team, no allowances for ‘star’ players and this égalité has given rise to it’s own fraternité; as the team strength and unity is clear to see.
Toulon will prove to be a significant test of their progress this season. To succeed they will need the courage to stay true to the game they are developing. To continue to play with liberté, with freedom, in attack based on a suffocating, intensity in defence, based on the trust and fraternité that genuine team spirit, and desire to play for each, other engenders. If they get this right then the Royal Navy have the ability to postpone for another couple of seasons égalité and move ahead 7-5 in the Babcock International Challenge, Le Crunch series. A very modern rivalry played in the truest values of both Navies that predate the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) or indeed the Siege of Toulon (1793).
A Brief History of Le Crunch
2005 First match played at Kneller Hall, Royal Navy win 2005
2009 Highest scoring match in the series sees the Royal Navy win 31-27 at USSG Portsmouth to move 4-1 ahead in victories
2011 Royal Navy Rugby Union recognises the status of the games v Marine Nationale by awarding it cap status. Ian Cooper becomes 682nd player capped by the RNRU, the first of six new caps at the match as the RN win 17-10 in Plymouth.
2014 Greg Welling scores the first and only try the Royal Navy have scored in three visits to Toulon
2015 Marine Nationale win their first game away from home, 33-19, to trail the Royal Navy 6-5 in the Babcock International Challenge
Article by Geraint Ashton Jones
Images by Alligin Photography / © Geraint Ashton Jones