An interesting view on the endless Country vs. Club story from Serge Blanco more famous for his exploits in Test Rugby than in Club Rugby: Serge Blanco's interview part I
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An audience with Serge Blanco
Every rugby fan will, somewhere in their slow-motion replay memory banks, have a Serge Blanco moment that they can instantly recall.
My own came in 1991 at Twickenham. Rob Andrew sent a kick towards the French corner but didn't get the bounce he wanted, and the ball drifted behind the French tryline. Blanco scurried back and picked up the loose ball, there was a quick glance at the three-quarters lining up outside him, and then he was off, streaking diagonally across his own 22 in front of a mass of gaping mouths, before releasing Jean-Baptiste Lafond down the right wing. France scored a wonderful try, finished off with a dazzling infield kick from Didier Camberabero to Philippe Saint-Andre who went under the posts. But the try's conception was all Blanco's, for he had the ball in hands at that crucial moment. There was no letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would' in such moments.
Blanco retired from rugby in 1991, with 93 international caps and 38 international tries to his name. He has continued to serve his beloved Biarritz Olympique club as President ever since, and in 1998, the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR) was formed to govern the professional club game in France. He was quickly appointed President of that as well. It is a ***le which he still holds. In all other countries, presidency of the league and one of its leading clubs (the current champions, in fact) might represent a serious conflict of interests, but...
"Not for him," said one Toulouse fan at the recent Toulouse-Biarritz league match. "Everybody loves him. He is good for the French game. He can do what he wants."
Not satisfied with just those two positions, Blanco has launched his own clothing line: the 'Serge Blanco 15' label, which still causes retired British three-quarters to twitch nervously upon sight of it (and which is soon to have a boutique in Cape Town if the man himself is to be believed). He also owns and manages a fantastically picturesque four-star hotel in Anglet - just outside Biarritz - called the Chateau Brindos, and it is there where he received me for an afternoon of refreshingly honest and heart-felt rugby chatter.
Talking to him is a lot like playing against him must have been. Simple questions are dealt with efficiently and with barely sufficient enthusiasm. When asked, for example, if there is a try he scored which sticks out in his memory - if he has his own Blanco moment - he simply leans back, shrugs, and says, "No. They were all important. They were for France. So they were all at the same level, and always at the right moment." He is as relaxed and unanimated as he was on the field when presented with a bog standard corner kick with plenty of time to dispatch it to touch. There is nothing more he will do with that particular ball.
Give him a loose question though, a question where there is a gap in the cover and where he feels he can impress something new and exhilarating onto the conversation, and we are away. Like, for example, a question about the current state of the international game. Blanco is angry with the IRB. Very angry. So angry is he in fact, that even the interpreter failed to keep up a couple of times - Blanco out-pacing his support again!
"One day I want a meeting with all the players who played in my generation, because I don't understand, how today, there can be so many international games," he said.
"Today, players are asked to play in so many competitions, because the unions use their international teams to get money. So the players are controlled by the national team and not the clubs, which means the clubs suffer.
"We have already asked the IRB to change things. We have asked for tours where a national team stays in one country, where the national teams play clubs during the weeks and the national team at the weekend. We don't want to see Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand every single year. You play the same team every year and it loses its flavour."
Blanco's sentiments echo those of many fans. Irrespective of how exciting the four matches eventually proved to be, there was a general consternation from the local rugby public at the news that South Africa would play Australia no less than four times this June.
When South Africa step out at the Stade de France on November 26, it will be the third time that the two teams have met this year. The Bok players will be at the end of a long month away after an arduous season, just as the French were when they came to Durban in June, and the home team is expected to win.
Even if the away team does win, the fixtures are becoming so commonplace that it is just another Test match now, not the kind of rarity fixture that we all used to look forward to. There is little meaning to the Test match marathons that take place at the end of then respective hemispheres' seasons, but a return to the good old days of Test series would spice it all up a bit.
"The problem is that the people in charge of the IRB are not thinking progressively," he continued.
"The IRB wants only big, professional, international games. They don't care about the rest, about the amateur game anymore. Argentina has a wonderful team, but there are hardly any games there. It is bad for the development of the game there, and for the sport in general. They should insist that teams like France, and England go to somewhere like Argentina.
"There are so many chances to develop rugby in the world. Rugby is an amazing game. Why destroy it? If you want more championships, you could have a world club championship, with 32 teams from all the countries for one month. Three out of four years. Then in the fourth year, you have the World Cup.
"Rugby is the only sport where the World Cup is an additional tournament. All other sports have a tournament to replace it. We could replace the international Test window with this club tournament. Why not? It would be interesting, much more interesting than the same old teams playing each other every year."
The international calendar was not the only issue of the international professional game to spark Blanco into action. There is also the problem of players defecting to play for other countries, which again came to the fore with London Wasps' Kiwi full-back Mark van Gisbergen's recent new-found eligibility for England after he completed the mandatory three-year residency.
"I can't believe that you can live in a country for three years and then represent that country," said Blanco. "This is a rule! This is why players from the Pacific Islands all go to New Zealand.
"I still don't understand so many things about the 'new' rules. How can you make five or seven replacements during a match? The teams do all this conditioning and strength work, and then they replace the players.
"It is like changing a boxer after seven rounds in a world ***le fight. It is not sport. I would rather have ten players on the bench, but only make changes if absolutely necessary, and maybe one tactical change.
"To avoid fakers chancing the system, you simply ban the 'injured' player for a week. They say it can be dangerous without the changes, but bringing on a fresh prop against a tired prop is even more dangerous for the tired prop."
By Danny Stephens - part two of the Serge Blanco interview will be on Wednesday.[/b]