OF all the fallen giants of French rugby the one I miss most is Beziers who at one stage boasted, arguably, the greatest club side our game has seen. Certainly the most feared physically, this was not a team that took prisoners.
It was therefore intriguing earlier this week to the read reports that an unnamed Emirati individual, said to be close to the Royal family, has offered €10m to buy the debt-ridden club.
Former France wing Christophe Dominici has been acting as a intermediary for the individual concerned who reportedly spent time locally looking to invest in the vineyard business and fell in love with the town which has seen massive unemployment in recent years and become a hotbed of far right politics.
Our mystery man said in a statement: “The friendly and warm welcome made us appreciate the region and its people with their accent which charmed us… in the warmth of discussions, we were shown the difficulties Beziers face, and we were asked to offer our support.”
From the outside looking in there are some strong parallels with Beziers the rugby club and Pontypool. Both seemed suited for professionalism but have fallen from grace. For decades both were synonymous with successful rugby, the product of a remorseless, almost professional, winning mentality.
Indeed Beziers if anything had the edge on Pooler in that they were brilliant in closing out titles. Not only did they dominate throughout the regular season like Pontypool, they also knew how to win semi-finals and finals which generally speaking was something Pooler struggled with in the Welsh Cup.
Between 1971 and 1984 Beziers appeared in eleven French Championship finals and won ten of them, a record that will surely never be approached again. Only Agen, in extra time in 1976, got the better of them, winning 13-10 on that occasion.
Off the back of that extraordinary success the local government and business concerns built the beautiful 20,0000 capacity sun-drenched Stade Mediterranean in 1986, a stadium fit for such a team, but, as often happens with new stadia and facilities, the timing was lousy. The glory days had gone and although for many years Beziers were a solid T14 presence they slipped down into Federale 1 before returning to ProD2 where they were midtable before Covid 19 took over
Beziers is a not a massive town or rugby metropolis and situated at the eastern end of the A9 – rugby’s fabled highway in France – it has always been a little removed from the south west’s rugby heartland. Their team used to pull in fans from all over the region, that’s what success does, but when the wins and trophies dried up those casual fans melted away or started supporting other sides.
Perpignan is not so very far away and when they went into decline there was Castres – twice French champions in recent times – to consider. The rise of Montpellier further up the coast has also come into play.
The other big factor in Beziers’ decline – and again there are echoes of Pontypool – is that they were ahead of their time in terms of fitness and conditioning. When other teams started catching up they lost their most important point of difference.
The man responsible for that was the recently-departed Raoul Barriere, their former prop, who coached Beziers to six of those titles between 1971 and 1978. With a squad of largely locally based players Barriere, a PE graduate and teacher, had them in training daily. Many were professionals in all but name ‘employed’ by the municipal council as labourers and ‘gardeners’. He weighed them every week, he took blood samples regularly, treated his charges like Olympic athletes.
It was Barriere who started it all and just as Pooler guru Ray Prosser had a Damascus moment as to how rugby should be played on the 1959 Lions tour, Barriere saw the way forward on France’s tour to South Arica in 1964 when he won his solitary cap. When he retired and took up coaching, Barriere immediately set about producing a Springbok- type pack with a French twist.
Did he ever!
There was French hard case hooker Alain Paco and his big mate, prop Armand Vaquerin, who played in ten French championship-winning sides before, aged 42, shooting himself dead in a game of Russian roulette in a Beziers bar.
Then there was man mountain lock Alain Esteve, the villainous Michel Palmie and back rower Olivier Saisset another enforcer. Georges Senal was another noted hard case in France, the winner of only six caps but a fixture in the Beziers side. Yvan Buonomo was another France cap in the back row who couldn’t disrupt the national Jean Pierre Rives-Jean Claude Skrela axis but was a hell of a performer and multi-championship winner.
That is some legacy and if the deal goes through Beziers must bide their time, learn to walk again before they run. They endured a bad trot in the late 60s and the basics haven’t changed much since then.
Monster pack, own the ball, accumulate points. That wins games and vitally gets the fans back and the snowball starts to roll again. Everything else – style, panache – is a bonus.
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