The term “French flair” originated back with the Boniface brothers in the 1960s, but it was Serge Blanco, rugby union’s very own Pelé, who made it common currency. It’s 16 years now since Blanco, still France’s record try scorer with 38 touch downs, hung up his boots. This year he celebrates a decade in charge of the French National League (LNR). During his tenure France’s professional club game, which was once anything but, has become a model of innovation and good housekeeping.
The league’s annual budget is now €52m, about 10 times what it was 10 years ago. Blanco has also proved himself a capable businessman, building up a successful string of high-end thalassotherapy resorts dotted around France and establishing a clothing line “Quinze Serge Blanco”, with stores as far away as Cape Town.
Now 49, Blanco has gained a few pounds since his playing days. He makes no secret of his delight in a good glass of wine and a juicy steak, preferably discussing the game he is still so passionate about. “Rugby’s a bit like fashion; it always comes back to its first love,” he says, easing back into the comfy chair of his Paris office. “For the game to work it must be built on disorder, not from the organisation of a scrum or a line-out, that’s real rugby flair. If you watch a club like Toulouse that’s how they play. The All Blacks, even if they didn’t win the World Cup, play an exciting kind of rugby and are right to continue heading in that direction. The current French team wants to play open and exciting rugby. What we can’t be satisfied with is a World Cup final between two teams like South Africa and England whose rugby is all about winning a forward battle.”
In spite of France’s defeat against England last weekend Blanco is impressed by the quietly efficient way new French coach Marc Liévremont is going about his business. “His vision is a good one,” says Blanco. “He knows that he’s going to be in charge of the French team for four years and he’s started off in the right way by looking at young players who have promise. He’s taken a look at unfashionable clubs like Montpellier, Bourgoin and Albi. It’s a good way of regenerating the international game.”
Blanco might also have added that it’s a good way of regenerating the club game. Not only does international recognition raise the profile of the less glamorous French clubs in the Top 14 but Liévremont’s policy of experimenting with different players means the same old clubs don’t suffer by losing their star players to international call-ups. Indeed there seems to be a spirit of rapprochement in the air. Blanco has come out and said that he will try and help Liévremont as much as he can by asking French clubs to release players in good time before internationals.
“I don’t earn any money as president of the league, not a centime. I’m totally independent, if I want I can leave tomorrow,” says Blanco. “I don’t have a salary like the president of the IRB. I do it because I love rugby. All I’m trying to do is shape the game in the way that I would have liked to have played it. That’s my motivation.”
Blanco’s great dream, one that he has harboured ever since playing for his beloved Biarritz, is to create a global club competition, along the lines of the World Cup. “It would last five weeks,” he says, jotting down his vision on the back of an envelope. “The top 32 clubs from all over the world would all get together in the same country every four years. I’ve worked out everything down to the last centime. I know the TV chains would all go for it. But trying to get a meeting to discuss it with the IRB is another matter.”
Blanco’s vision of a global club game, one in which the competitive calendars of countries from the northern and southern hemispheres are aligned, generally receives short shrift whenever he attempts to bring up the subject. “Every country is intent on looking after number one,” he says. “There’s no co-operation going on. Rugby’s richest continent is Europe. There has to be more solidarity between Europe and the rest of the world. It’s not by playing more rugby matches that you get richer. To get richer you have to spread rugby to the furthest corners of the globe.”
It is the main reason why Blanco did not support the choice of New Zealand for the next World Cup to be held in 2011. “We should have agreed to go Japan, which is financially equipped to bring a lot more money into the game. By going to Asia we would have opened up the game to a whole new audience,” he says. “That’s where rugby’s business future lies. The World Cup in France was the most successful there’s ever been as far as the level of popularity and television coverage the tournament received. Now we’re going to go to a country that’s three times smaller than France, where there’s 25,000 times less people, and it’s going to be an economic nightmare.”
When it comes to rugby Blanco is anything but a sentimentalist and remains frustrated by the rather quaint attitudes that continue to dominate a game that struggle, to cast off its amateurism. “I remember when I was being critical of the next World Cup, everyone said, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. We’re doing our New Zealand friends a good turn.’ But it’s not good business sense,” he says, shaking his head. “I think the IRB needs to sort its house out. I repeat, all I’m interested in is that rugby spreads its wings and develops into a global game.”