St. James’s Gazette, March 20, 1903
FOOTBALL IN FRANCE.
What are the prospects of Rugby football in France? It is an interesting question, and one not easy to answer. That the game is popular at the moment, at least in Paris, is undeniable. Football and the cake-walk are what Paris wants just now. The latter, it may safely be prophesied, will sooner or later, probably sooner, cease to fascinate. Whether the same fate is reserved for the former remains to be seen.
The impressions recorded in this article are of a more or less flashlight nature. They were collected in the course of two afternoons. But in these two afternoons was gathered a specimen of every kind of French football—the first-class, the second-class, and the public school. At present there are only two first-class clubs in Paris, the Stade Français and the Racing Club. The Stade Bordelais, which competes with them for the championship, is a good deal inferior, and may almost rank as second-class. There was a time when the majority of the members of these two clubs were Englishmen and Scotchmen. That, however, was in the infancy of the game, before Paris sealed it with its approval. Now there is only one Englishman in the first two fifteens. Taylor is his name, and he belongs to the Racing Club. It was mainly through his agency that the Racing Club was victorious in the match with the Stade on February 22 last. This was the first-class match referred to above. It was played on the Stade Français ground, concerning which it may be said that it is better than that on which the Racing Club play. A curious feature is that the goal-posts are padded up to a height of a few feet. At one end of the ground is erected a large scoring-board, on which willing hands paint the score in white paint. It was a good game from start to finish. The Racing Club won by nineteen points to nil, but there was no trace of one-sidedness about the play. The spectator came away with the impression that they had won because they had happened to score five times, not because they had noticeably the better team. Each club attacked in turn throughout, and the Racing Club three-quarters won the game for their side because on five separate and distinct occasions they did not drop the ball when they had a clear run in. Had the Stade been equally prudent they might have saved the game, for they had plenty of opportunities of which they might have taken advantage. The moral of which is that French footballers, especially the outsides, should try to develop a far greater accuracy in handling the ball. At present this is their great fault. Nothing could have been drier or easier to hold on that particular day. There was nothing to excuse the uncertainty of the passing. Time after time the three-quarters lost their side a try by bungling passes straight into their hands. Generally it was the wings who did this. The half-backs, notably Taylor, and the centres, though not infallible, were more accurate. Until their catching is improved, Parisian footballers will never be able to stand against a really good English club.
Place kicking is another branch of the game which the Paris footballer would do well to cultivate with more energy. To the Frenchman’s mind the try seems to be the final object. He appears to set no value on the two extra points. Three times the ball was grounded behind the posts, and each time the kick failed. The punting, on the other hand, was excellent. I did not see a single drop-kick attempted during the whole course of the game, except from the twenty-five line after a touch down, when the rules gave the kicker no option.
It was a very lively game. “Frothy” is the word to describe it. The French methods of play are not, footbally speaking, always the best, but they are very pleasant to watch. The man with the ball, so far from holding it too long, had a tendency to part with it too soon, even if the man to whom he passed was in a worse position than himself.
A noticeable point, and one in which the French game differs substantially from the English, is that each forward has his place in the scrimmage. Number one in the first line may not form up in the second place or the third line. Number two of the third line must not oust number three of the second line. What happens, one naturally asks, if a front rank man is late in arriving on the scene of a scrum? It appears peculiar, but they wait for him. The game is entirely suspended until he comes up. Here, then, we have an essential difference between the two styles of play, and this difference perhaps accounts for the fact that many quite good English teams go across to be badly beaten by the Parisians. An English player, when collared, puts the ball down and dribbles on. When he tries this method on French soil, the referee whistles him back, and a scrimmage is formed, and the ball duly inserted with all formality by a half-back. It is hard to understand why this should be so. The nature of the Frenchman—which he carries with him on the football field—is so impetuous that it would be more in keeping with it if he refused to stop for anything, even the whistle. It is quite opposed to the spirit of his game that play should be suspended, sometimes for nearly a minute, while the forwards gradually sort themselves into their official places. Probably, as football gains a greater hold over the country—if it ever does—the rule will be altered, and the more businesslike method of “putting it down and going on” substituted.
Perhaps the most interesting of the three encounters was the public school match, the first game of its kind ever played, and it is to be hoped that it will not be the last. England was fortunate in her representative—Dulwich College—for the Alleynian team of this season comes very near the top of the list of Rugby playing schools. Of the five schools which appear on the Dulwich fixture card, Tonbridge alone proved too much for the team. Bedford Grammar School, Haileybury, St. Paul’s, and Merchant Taylors’ were all beaten, the two last by very large margins. The team that went to Paris contained only ten of the regular fifteen, but it was strong enough for the purpose. The rival school was the Ecole Albert le Grand, the champion football school of Paris. A large French Ecole more closely resembles an English University than a public school, the age limit being extended to twenty-two and twenty-three. In this match the Ecole Albert le Grand had the assistance of several Old Boys—one from the Stade Français first fifteen, and five from the second fifteens of the two clubs. The game was keenly fought out from beginning to end, and the result, twenty points to six in favour of the visitors, is a reliable index to the respective form of the two teams. A fact worthy of attention is that all the Dulwich scoring was done by the three-quarters, three of the tries being gained by Caswall, the captain, who played an admirable game on the left wing. Several of the Ecole subsequently expressed their surprise at the accuracy of the combination. What struck them as particularly novel was that when passing the Dulwich three-quarters used two hands. A French player uses only one, and this explains why their bouts of passing so seldom reach their legitimate end, the man on the wing. But there is no doubt whatever that the Parisian footballer has the root of the matter in him. At present the natural excitability of the French renders them excellent as far as individual play is concerned, but prevents them from becoming really first class as teams. To combine properly requires coolness. But an English fifteen can no longer cross the Channel with the easy anticipations of victory which it could once enjoy. It may take it from one who has seen the French play the game, and who has discussed their form with those who are in a position to know, that a good French team takes a great deal of beating. It plays hard and it keeps going. In a few years Paris will be producing fifteens that will cause a very considerable astonishment in this country.
P. G. W.