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Interview Of The Lnr President



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]
The Serge Blanco Interview Part II

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The Serge Blanco interview - part 2
Wednesday November 16 2005
Talking Rugby World Cups and player burn-out

France will host the 2007 Rugby World Cup, and it will be hosted on a spring tide of rugby optimism in the country. At club level, France is currently dominating European competition, and while the national team flattered to deceive somewhat during the last Six Nations tournament, only a fool would write them off completely.

Serge Betsen: Only 27 matches last season, but all 12 of France's matches.
Serge Betsen: Only 27 matches last season, but all 12 of France's matches.

Yet, there are anomalies. The 2003 tournament in Australia was conspicuous for being played wholly within one country, and thereby having a strongly national identity.

In 2007 though, four matches will be played in Cardiff - three of them the home Pool matches of Wales, and Scotland will have a packed Murrayfield roaring them on when they take on New Zealand. It is not as if France do not have the facilities available to host a Rugby World Cup, so why the foreign games?

"Parce que le rugby est un chose formidable, mais le politique que cette chose est impenetrable," mused Blanco drily. His involvement in the bidding process was on both a public relations level and on the administration of the French Top 14 league during the World Cup weeks.

"It is all about politics. For the rugby it would have been no problem, but the politics..." (and here he shook his head and gave a forlorn smile).

"It was about the negotiation with the other countries. England wanted the World Cup so we didn't negotiate with them, but we did with the other home nations. This, I suppose, was the politics."

The 2011 World Cup will undoubtedly be a single nation affair, with Japan refusing the very kind (sic) offer of New Zealand to co-host, and South Africa too isolated to afford opportunities to co-host anywhere else. The neutral public's hot favourite is Japan, whose Soccer World Cup was a lesson in preparation and national effort. Should they get the award, it would be a clear signal that the game was expanding on a global scale.

"It would be a good idea, a very good idea," he said, and then he leaned forward, animated again.

"But I do not think it will happen. Argentina could also organise this tournament, but unfortunately there is the question of money and politics again. Sadly, maybe because of this problem it (Japan) will not happen, even though I would prefer it - that is my personal opinion. For the sport it would be superb." He leaned back once more.

France, under Bernard Laporte, are currently developing a team well-capable of matching the All Blacks and South Africa - clearly the strongest teams at the moment - and Blanco, who took France to the inaugural Rugby World Cup final 18 years ago, thinks that history is about to repeat itself.

"The French team is not especially the strongest," said Blanco.

"All countries have only a few players capable of playing at the very highest level. The most important thing is that there is a backbone of five or six players in a team.

"Our chances? I think the final will be between France and New Zealand like 20 years ago, like the one I played in. Hopefully France will win this time!

"We have the potential to win. We have wanted, and we have, put everything in place for this team to do its best.

"Everybody has worked together for this, to make sure the French team is in the right position. We didn't agree about the calendar, and with the choice of the time of year, but we are doing our best.

Blanco has already made the point that the World Cup is an addition to the rugby calendar rather than being a part of a four-year plan. In 2003, players from England were spared club duty for the early part of the season just to play in it, but other countries' players did not have that luxury. By the end of the Northern Hemisphere 2003/4 season, many players were seriously burned out - it has taken Ben Cohen until now to fully recover.

In France, the season is longest of all domestic seasons, with 26 Top 14 fixtures, all the European weekends, not to mention the international weekends. Even this has been reduced by four, after the Top 16 was trimmed to a Top 14.

There are continual high-profile debates in the press about how many matches the top players play. Yet those who are the life-blood of the club game, servants of their team for a dozen years who never make it onto the international arena are largely overlooked in such debates. Once again, Blanco sees the bigger picture, and revealed an interesting anomaly.

"We are putting in place a system for next season, in which we hope to restrict EVERY player to 37 matches per year, be that player international or not," he said.

"We don't limit that to international players only, because then we are only talking about thirty or forty players. There are 900 professional rugby players in France. We should look at the majority.

"When we look at it properly, the club players often play more than the international players.

"Serge Betsen, for example, played only fifteen matches for Biarritz last season, yet he played all twelve matches for France - but that is only 27 matches altogether. What would be the best system? The system we want includes all the players, and is fair to all the clubs."

It is a shame that the politics and the rigidity of the IRB appears to be frustrating Blanco, for there is no doubt that with his innovation, willingness to experiment, and love of the game and its principles, he has been the driving force behind the success of rugby in France domestically.

By Danny Stephens - the final part of the interview will appear on Thursday.[/b]
The last Part (III) of the interview

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The Serge Blanco interview - part 3

The format of the French club championship has changed on an almost seasonal basis since its inception in the 1998-99 season.

Originally there were three pools of eight teams, with a knockout playoff round at the end. The knockout finale has stayed, but the league format has changed a number of times. It has not been without its struggles - the players threatened to go on strike when the format became a straight 16-team league format in 2002-3 - but there is no denying that the current format and financial structure is beneficial to all 30 professional clubs.

There is the Top 14, and below them, the Pro Division 2, consisting of 16 clubs. The top team is promoted, and then the teams placed second to fifth play-off on a knockout basis for the second promotion spot.

Two clubs are to be relegated from the Top 14 this season - last season it was four, so as to reduce the number of clubs from 16 to 14, and therefore the number of fixtures for the top teams. Considering all the Top 14 clubs have Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup commitments as well, the French season is still by far the longest domestic season in the world.

But Blanco is now adamant that the current format is here to stay, and that the players can be regulated so as to avoid burn-out. The continual high-profile club v country confusion that reigns in many of the world's leading rugby-playing nations is, for the large part, noticeably absent.

"The reason we changed is because French club rugby is unique," said Blanco.

"We have many many teams, and this structure was to equate with new professionalism. We wanted to give a chance to ALL the teams, and to be able to start a new era under professionalism. The way we have done it was the best solution every time.

"The number (of teams) was not defined. Nobody thought in '98 that rugby could be professional in France. The target was to put in place everything so it would work properly. The League evolved as a result of putting this all in place.

"When I started as President in July '98, the budget for the league was 30 m Francs (roughly 5m Euros). By August in the same year, that had grown to 220m francs (roughly 35.5 m Euros), between television, marketing etc. Today it is 40m, only for the league.Today for a strong club, the budget is 15m Euros, and for the weakest it is 6m. Biarritz's budget in 1997 was 800,000 Euros, now it is 8m.

"We gave a chance to all the clubs, and today we have 30 successful professional clubs, who have a higher budget than all the other clubs in the amateur section (The federal leagues) put together."

French club rugby is on the up. Their teams are dominating European competition more and more, and according to one national paper, people in France are deserting soccer for rugby.

The club game has a collection of unique and localised identities, which have not lost their emotional strength even in the face of professionalism's belligerence. It is a feature of France's culture that the country consists of every kind of different landscape, that most towns have their own speciality food, and that towns have unique accents.

With many of France's most prominent rugby clubs based in the South-West - L'Ovalie (the land of the oval ball) as it is known - a good number of fixtures are played in a derby intensity and atmosphere, a kind of tribal warfare between neighbouring villages.

The rugby stadia in many towns are focal points of the community, and the emotion visible when a team loses at home must apparently be seen to be believed - I, sadly, did not witness that. It is extremely rare, especially among top teams. Perpignan have not lost at home since January 2004. Bourgoin are undefeated at home in the French league for over three years - although their European adventures have been less than successful.

"We have identities," said Blanco. "Differences. And we work on that. It is important. Maybe we are different from other countries in certain aspects of the game, some are better, some are weaker.

"Since rugby has become professional, it has become more competitive. I also think that it is important to keep these differences, as this is important for the identity. If everybody plays the same rugby, the game is finished,"

Here he leaned forward to make his point again.

"In our championship, some teams play with forwards only, some with the backs, some with all fifteen players. Everything is there in our championship. In the Super 12, all the teams play the same, and the rugby is flat. It gets boring quickly. All the rugby styles should be different. We have to work on the differences to make sure our national team can play all those styles."

As well as the careful retention of the 'amateur', non-corporate, and fan-driven atmosphere and identity of the clubs even during the move into professional era, the other laudable development in French rugby has been the willingness from flamboyant club presidents and owners like Max Guazzini of Stade Français, Marcel Martin of Biarritz, and Marcel Dagrenat of Perpignan to experiment, and to create as many gala rugby days as possible.

Thus it was that Biarritz filled San Sebastian's 40,000-capacity Anoeta stadium for their Heineken Cup quarter-final against Munster last year, the 45,000-capacity Parc des Princes - one of the grandest old rugby arenas where the French national team used to play home matches and which is now home only to the Paris Saint-German soccer team - was twice again awash with blue, albeit the blue of Stade Français, for Heineken Cup quarter-final and semi-final.

Thus it was that earlier this season the French national record for a domestic fixture in ANY sport was shattered, when 79,454 people turned up for the match between Stade Français and Toulouse when Guazzini rented the stadium and sold tickets for 10 Euros each. If Blanco has his way, this trend will continue.

"Yes yes yes," he said when asked if this development was something he would like to perpetuate.

"There were 46,000 demands for tickets for Toulouse v Biarritz (played on October 10). They (Toulouse) regret not moving it now, they could have moved it to the Stade Municipal (37,000 seats), but they were scared because it was on a Sunday night and they thought people might not be prepared to stay up so late.

"All the top clubs have stadia with an 18,000 capacity or less. We encourage moves to bigger stadia in bigger games for the comfort of the spectators. We encourage more clubs to move to stadiums which could host such events.

"Bourgoin could go to Lyon, especially in the Heineken Cup. Perpignan may go to Barcelona this year. We wish other teams would do it as well for their biggest games, to go to soccer stadia like Leicester are trying to do, so that more people come to the game and make more money for the clubs.

"In France, rugby has become the second-most watched sport. In the Sunday papers this week, there was a sports article, saying how welcoming the rugby was compared to our boring football. For the first five weekends of our league, the attendances increased 25% in total, and they have increased every year. It is a veritable phenomenon.

"We now have three live games a week on television, on Canal +, we have live games from the Pro D2 on terrestrial channel France 3. If the results of the national team are good as well, the World Cup will come just in time!"

The ideas and innovations poured forth during the interview, in which Blanco set himself aside from so many of rugby's administrators. Today's rugby administration - at national, club, or provincial level all over the world - is too often concerned with making profit and as much money as possible.

Blanco barely mentioned money beyond demonstrating the growth of the game in France. His attitude appears to be the other way round to most of the game's administrators. He believes that the more interesting, open, accessible and enjoyable the game is, the more people will come to see it, and the money will simply flow in.

It is a simplistic view, and not always a realistic one, but given the success of rugby in France at the moment and the likely enormous success of the next Rugby World Cup, it is an attitude difficult to find fault with. Just as in his playing days, Blanco is creating exciting innovations, rather than playing for percentages. As far as the fans are concerned, he is still scoring more points too.

Serge Blanco was talking to Danny Stephens[/b]
DonBilly, thanks for that. A very great read. I agree with pretty much everything the man has said.
You're wellcome Captain. I found it very interesting. The SANZAR people are very focused on the Test Rugby and complain a lot on the behaviour of the Engnglish and French clubs. I thought it would be interesting to present the view of a defender of Club Rugby.

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