French test promises a magnifique occasion
As Jean Pierre-Rives began tinkling the piano keys in his Toulouse pad, a small group of All Blacks wondered whether the Golden Helmet's musical ability could equal his deeds on the rugby field.
What they saw and heard at the French captain's house that night in 1981 left them spellbound; Rives, the tearaway flanker with the flaxen mane and a bent for art, proved his capabilities stretched well beyond the sports realm.
"He had grand piano and he just sat down and started playing some classical music," former All Blacks wing Stu Wilson recollected.
"It blew us out of the water. We thought ‘gee this is not bad - it's a bit different, it's not just a couple of jugs down at the pub'. It was one of the best times I have had."
That tour proved memorable for the All Blacks who recorded test victories in Toulouse and Paris for a 2-0 series clean-sweep.
Wilson also toured France in 1977 but it was the lively performances of some of their players before, and during, the matches that left quite an impression on him.
The first test at Toulouse's Stade Municipal hadn't even started when Wilson glanced across at the French players sharing the narrow stadium tunnel. It was then that he realised some had already collected their share of scrapes and bruises.
The side contained Michel Palmie, the lock who carried a reputation for possessed fists that could unleash thunderbolts and was later banned from rugby for belting an opponent so hard it left him partially blind.
Gerard Cholley, a hefty former heavyweight boxer tagged "Le Guv'nor", was also in the side.
It was the latter, a prop, who captured Wilson's attention.
"It was at a soccer stadium and the tunnel was only supposed to be big enough for one team," Wilson said.
"When Cholley went down, there was room for no-one. I just happened to [stand] beside him and he was punching the roof and a bit of blood was coming out of his knuckles.
"I just thought ‘oh-oh' there is no way I am going to get into many rucks with these boys."
The French were to win 18-13. Cholley also left an impression on All Blacks front rower Gary Knight who was forced to leave the field with an eye injury.
Wilson said the New Zealanders had some "good boys" who were not afraid to defend themselves but said the French operated under a different code of ethics.
"Gary Knight got his eye-gouged and that was the end of him. You don't get an eye-gouge through the boot.
"They just tried to beat us up. Sometimes they won and sometimes they didn't. That's their style, that's the way they did it in the 70s and 80s."
The All Blacks won the second test 15-3 in Paris with coach Jack Gleeson and captain Graham Mourie hatching a fine strategy to play the game at pace and limit Cholley's opportunities to create mayhem.
Once the game was over, the real fun began.
Wilson was only too happy to follow French second rowers Jean-Francois Imbernon and Palmie as they showed him the night sights around Paris. Even when they unexpectedly left him at a bar in a dodgy part of the city, he couldn't fault their hospitality.
"The language, at times, was a bit difficult. But by the time you had a bottle of pinot and three bottles of red wine, anyone could speak French," he said.
"They're colourful but of course you don't kind of know if they are going to turn-up like that the next week. That's the beauty of the occasion when you play them."
Former All Blacks lock Colin Meads, in a "Legends of the All Blacks" interview, reminisced about the post-match revelry that erupted during a post-match dinner after the second test in Wellington in 1961.
Meads, a beer drinker, was introduced to wine for the first time in his life.
The French told the All Blacks that it was their duty to entertain but only if the Kiwis drank what they drank.
When the chef produced the Southland seafood delicacy of Toheroa soup, French lock Michel Celeya decided to spice it up by pouring wine into the mixture.
"He picked the plate up and slurped it down so naturally I had to do the same," recounted Meads. "I got through the dinner but I had to get the captain, Wilson Whineray, to help me home.
"When I got up to our room that night, well, you can imagine it - there were bodies everywhere. But what a night it was."
In his book Colin Meads All Black also marvelled at the French backs' passing skills on the field but was less complimentary about centre Claude Dourthe's tackling in the 1967 test in Paris.
"It was Dourthe, who in the 1967 test in Paris, nearly took the head off our centre Bill Davis with just about the most vicious stiff-arm tackle I have seen."
This was followed by hooker Bruce McLeod reprimanding Davis for allowing himself to be subjected to such punishment.
"And with what might have looked to be a gesture he emphasised his advice with a punch that happened to coincide with Dourthe's chin."
Former All Blacks prop Craig Dowd, who played for London club Wasps between 2001-05 and tangled with French clubs in Heineken Cup matches, agreed with Wilson's view about their unpredictability.
"I also remember playing my first Heineken Cup game against Stade Francais. I could see this guy out of the corner of my eye running up to me. We were in the open but he still punched me from behind."
Perhaps it is Wilson who sums up the experience of playing the French in their country the best.
"It's an occasion when you play, not a game. An occasion. It's special."
- Fairfax Media
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