David Beresford decided to trace and write about the French players he idolised in his youth. The result, Brothers in Arms, has been shortlisted for Rugby Book of the Year

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Brothers in Arms: Raising a glass to France

The past 12 months have seen some outstanding rugby autobiographies, but it’s always refreshing to read something away from the norm. That’s the case with Brothers in Arms, a self-published book by first-time author David Beresford.

You have to go back to the Seventies and Eighties for the genesis of the book, when Beresford was growing up in Bath. The 1980 Grand Slam apart, it was a barren era for England’s national team. Across the channel France were in their pomp. In the Eighties alone, France won six Five Nations titles (three of them shared) and Grand Slams in 1981 and 1987.

Beresford found their swashbuckling rugby mesmerizing. “I loved watching Jérôme Gallion and Didier Codorniou, as did my brother,” he says.

“England were rubbish between 1981 and 1988, so we supported France, who had these players with exotic names who played for clubs with wonderful names: Bayonne, Toulon, Agen, Biarritz, Narbonne… I studied French from 1978 to 1985 at King Edward’s School in Bath, so I developed a love for the country as well.”

Brothers in Arms

Entente cordiale: Philippe Dintrans, David Beresford, Sean Fitzpatrick and Daniel Dubroca (Pierre Carton)

Wind forward 30 years and Beresford, now a successful businessman, decides to take a work break after a company flotation. The 18-month window allows him to pursue an ambitious project: tracking down all his French rugby heroes from the Eighties and writing a book about them for charity.

Between November 2017 and June 2019, he made around 20 trips to all corners of France, a country he already knew intimately having worked there. A fluent French speaker, he dined with legends of the game and learnt about their careers and their lives.

A happy bonus for this passionate epicurean was the opportunity to indulge in fine food and wine. Whilst at Loughborough University, he spent a year studying in Bordeaux and recalls a meal “so rich and enticing that eating it was like being seduced by an ensemble of French maids smeared in goose fat”. He is similarly taken by the gastronomic delights that accompanied the compiling of this book.

The success of the project derives in large part from Beresford’s ability to interact with his subjects as if he himself was French. “I wanted to do something that no other journalist could have done. What was my point of difference?” he says.

Brothers in Arms France v New Zealand, 1986

Blue velvet: Eric Bonneval is tackled by Joe Stanley during the 1986 clash with NZ in Toulouse (Corbis)

“The players found it fascinating that this unknown bloke turned up, knew all about them, loved them and their country and customs, could converse with them fluently in their own language, and wanted to cover their glory years. What’s not to like!

“But you’ve got to win them over really quickly; from your first sentence they’re going to form an opinion of you. It’s not just about the language, it’s has he lived here, can he talk about food and wine, does he understand the customs around kissing and shaking hands and when you eat and when you don’t eat, all this sort of stuff. It makes a big difference.”

Brothers in Arms Pascal Ondarts

Basque great: Pascal Ondarts, whose hotel near Bayonne served as an unoffical HQ for the project (Pierre Carton)

His journey starts in the Basque Country with an exquisite fish lunch with the revered Serge Blanco. Two bottles into a three-hour meal, Blanco teed up interviews with Patrice Lagisquet, Didier Camberabero and Daniel Dubroca, ringing them there and then and passing the phone to Beresford. Blanco, Laurent Pardo and Pascal Ondarts were all instrumental in connecting the author with players.

Beresford’s dream tour was to embrace 32 players and one coach. We learn much about these giants of yesteryear.

At Lourdes, when Jean-Pierre Garuet lifted his opposite number in the scrum, the club directors would buy a round of pastis for the whole team. Laurent Rodriguez, the mighty No 8, was so strong that he could lift a maul up and rip the ball away.

Alain Lorieux, welcoming Beresford to his house in the foothills of the Alps, admonishes him for swirling his champagne – “the finesse comes from the bubbles that have to attach themselves to the side of the glass,” he points out. He also proudly digs out a Midi Olympique article in which Martin Johnson has singled out the ex-Grenoble lock for praise.

Jean-Pierre Rives’s beachfront house, an hour east of Toulon, contains not a single rugby memento. “I gave away all my medals. The memories are in my soul,” says the great golden-haired warrior, captain of France’s 1981 Grand Slam-winning team.

France v Scotland at 1987 Rugby World Cup

Line break: Alain Lorieux looks for support against the Scots in their RWC 1987 clash in Christchurch (AFP)

Hugo MacNeill, the ex-Ireland full-back, likened defending against the French back-line to facing a squadron of fighter jets coming at you from all directions. “It looked chaotic but they knew instinctively where the space was, where to support each other, which angles to hit.”

As a former centre, that resonates with Beresford. He particularly savours meeting men like Codorniou, the “Mozart of rugby” who is now a politician, and Philippe Sella, who coach Jacques Fouroux described as having the strength of a buffalo and the touch of a pianist.

Sella set up a sporting association, Les Enfants de l’Ovale, to help underprivileged children. Lagisquet, whose daughter has Down’s syndrome, founded the Chrysalide Association that supports parents of kids with learning difficulties.

Related content: The Magic of Mixed Ability Rugby

Jean-Baptiste Lafond was the most difficult man to trace. He and Pardo, the man at the heart of the French Barbarians, have a well-earned reputation as serial ‘partygoers’. So much so that when France needed an injury replacement at the 1987 World Cup, they summoned Lafond even though he wasn’t fit – they wanted him there for morale purposes!

“On tours I was invariably in the midweek team, so I used to go out and party a lot,” says Lafond, who plays golf with one hand because of a bad back. “I slept a lot in hotel lobbies because I didn’t want to wake the players up in the middle of the night.”

Brothers in Arms, Elie Vaquerin

Close bond: Elie Vaquerin, whose celebrated brother Armand died in tragic circumstances (Pierre Carton)

There is a poignant ‘Loved and Lost’ section in which the author talks to immediate relatives of four great rugby men who died tragically young: Fouroux, Robert Paparemborde, Pierre Lacans and Armand Vaquerin. The latter, a French championship winner a staggering ten times from 1971 to 1984, allegedly killed himself playing Russian roulette in a Beziers bar.

Beresford hasn’t lost a child but he writes movingly about a traumatic week in 2000 when his son William looked set to succumb to septicemia – they had even been offered the services of a priest – before he made a miraculous recovery.

Pierre Dospital, whose famed strength came from carrying huge slabs of meat in an abattoir, lost a seven-year-old son to a blood clot in 1977. “He was inside me for matches and I would say to him, ‘Come with me, let’s do it together’. I didn’t need more motivation than that.”

Who were the most difficult players to write about?

“There were two, for very different reasons,” says Beresford. “One was Marc Cécillon, killed his wife, how do you tell that? He was a magnificent player. And actually I really liked him when I met him. What he did was terrible but all I felt for him was compassion, I could see the sorrow in his eyes. He’s completely destroyed his life.

“Pascal Ondarts, a great friend of his, says we can never forgive him but we also can’t leave him to lie in the gutter.

Brothers in Arms France v Ireland 1988

Lolo goes solo: Laurent Rodriguez, watched by Pierre Berbizier, heads for the Irish line in 1988 (AFP/Getty)

“The second guy who was tough to write about was Pierre Berbizier because he divides opinion. He’s an incredibly impressive man. Some people are very complimentary about him, others are critical. There are some fractured relationships. I wanted to bring out some of those characteristics but didn’t want to offend him. I wrote it about four times.”

There are several references to the violence that was once part and parcel of the French game and which could not happen today, at least not at elite level.

Sean Fitzpatrick, who writes the foreword, had a sabbatical in France in 1986-87 and played for the Romans club. He recalls entering the changing room and being thrown a kind of cricket box, used for protection against being kicked in the groin. Eye-gouging – la fourchette – was another unpalatable aspect.

Brothers in Arms Jean-Pierre Rives

Le Casque D’Or: Jean-Pierre Rives, “a creative force and powerful independent thinker” (Pierre Carton)

Dubroca was kicked in the head playing for Agen against Toulouse during the 1986 French final. He swallowed his tongue and only swift action by Berbizier and a doctor averted the hooker’s potential death.

Beresford says he feels 60% English and 40% French, so there were no tears shed when les Rosbifs slipped up in Paris in this year’s Six Nations. Does he support a particular French club?

“I’ve got a soft spot for Bayonne,” says the writer, who runs international business development for a London-based software company, Pollinate.

“Bayonne is the heartland of French Basque country and the stadium there, Stade Jean Dauger, has something mystical about it. Jean Dauger was one of the great French centres, although he hardly played for France (three caps) because he went to rugby league for a while.”

Although the rugby chat is very much the core of the book, there is a strong sense of the travelogue to Beresford’s work too. There are visits to vineyards and he is particularly nostalgic about Provence, which he first sampled in 1986. “I’m sure it is where I perfected the art of small talk, partying, flirting and procrastination.”

Cover of Brothers in Arms

Brothers in Arms has been published in both French and English editions. It runs to more than 400 glossy pages and includes some stunning photography by Pierre Carton.

Any profits arising from sales will go to four charities close to Beresford’s heart: the UK Sepsis Trust, Stroke Association, British Heart Foundation and 40tude, which tackles colon cancer.

The book has been shortlisted in the rugby category of the Telegraph Sports Book Awards – read about the full list of contenders here.

We also have six signed copies to give away in a competition – find out how to enter here.

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