Gerard Cholley was nickednamed as the Master of Menace throughout the Seventies as he dominated in a French scrum of hardmen, he chats to Rugby World about his career
There is a lot of fiction surrounding Gerard Cholley. But first the facts. He was indeed a former boxer, a former paratrooper and a front-row forward of the highest order. He also frightened a lot of opponents. In 2006 the Sunday Times’ Stephen Jones voted him ‘the most frightening French rugby player of all time’. That’s some accolade, considering Cholley faced competition from the likes of Alain Esteve, aka, ‘the Beast of Beziers’, and Michel Palmie, who once partially blinded a man with a punch.
Former England and Lions prop, Fran Cotton, has said of Cholley, that he was “like a huge nightclub bouncer going to work and you couldn’t take your eyes off him for 80 minutes, he was always up to no good”.
Yet Cholley was more than just a tyrant to a generation of front-rows, he was also a scrum technician of rare talent. In his autobiography, former Wales and Lions hooker Bobby Windsor picks Cholley as the only Frenchman in his world XV pack selected from players he played with or against. “A fearsome bloke with a neck the size of an Aberdeen Angus bull,” wrote Windsor of the Frenchman he nicknamed ‘the Master of Menace’. “Cholley was a heavyweight boxer who was fond of stopping opponents well inside the distance. He played in the best pack I ever came up against.”
The greatest French prop of all-time? Possibly. The scariest? Definitely. But perhaps it’s that reputation which, down the years, has led to a blending of fact with fiction. It’s said, for example, that he was a heavyweight boxing champion in the French military, and that he came to rugby late in life, after an official from the Castres club saw him dominate a bar-room brawl. The reality, as Cholley explained to Rugby World, is more mundane.
He boxed in his adolescence before being called up when he was 18 for his compulsory 18-month National Service, enlisting in the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment. “In my last month of Service  I went into a café in Castres, which was the seat of the rugby club,” he explains. “At that point in my life I’d never seen a rugby match, never even picked up a ball. The café owner looked at me and said ‘you’re a big lad, you should be playing rugby’.
“The following Sunday, I went back to the same café for a coffee after lunch at the [army] canteen and the bus with the reserve team was just about to leave to play an away match. I decided to go with them to watch, and they talked me into playing even though I knew nothing about rugby. But during the match a fight broke out, and, well, I knew a lot about fighting. And I thought, this is the sport for me’.
“As it was the last month of my military service, I could do pretty much what I wanted in the evening so the following week I trained every night and on Sunday I played again with the reserve team . Within a fortnight I was playing for the 1st XV.”
For the first eight years of his rugby career, Cholley packed down his 6ft 4in and 120kg frame in the second-row but in the early 1970s he moved into the front-row. Freakishly strong and ferociously aggressive, Cholley was transformed in his new position from a good club player to a great international. “I just learned on the job,” he says of mastering the technical skills required for a prop. “I was very strong in the back but I also had the flexibility of an athlete. I could do what I wanted with my body and that’s why I inflicted a lot of misery on my opponents.”
Cholley won the first of his 31 caps against England at Twickenham in 1975, a match that also saw the first appearance of Jean-Pierre Rives on the flank. It was a winning start to their international careers but it wasn’t until the 1976 Five Nations that Cholley came up against the great Welsh and Pontypool front-row of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner.
It was the penultimate match of that season’s championship, a clash between the two nations that would dominate European rugby for the rest of the decade. “The day before the match I had a fever of 39 degrees,” explains Cholley. “But I really wanted to play against Wales so I stuffed myself full of vitamin C tablets. So I was very pumped up on the day of the match. So pumped up, in fact, that I smashed my fists into the ceiling and part of it fell down on top of Jean-François Imbernon [the France second-row].”
Cholley’s first clash with Wales ended in a 19-13 defeat, a victory that secured the Grand Slam for the Welsh. The following season France beat Wales 16-9 on the way to their own clean sweep – which included the win over Scotland in which Cholley knocked out two opponents – but in 1978 Wales were victorious in the Grand Slam decider. “It was a great Welsh team and a great front-row,” reflects Cholley. “Not that that stopped us from trying to give them a good going over. There was a lot of respect between us but at the same time we didn’t give each other any presents!”
Playing alongside Cholley in the 1978 defeat to Wales was Guy Noves and Cholley offers a cautious assessment of the task the former wing now faces as national coach. “Noves is trying to build a team for the World Cup so we have to be lenient,” he says. “He’s introduced a lot of young players and, like England, they’re feeling their way. Let’s see what happens in four years.”
Cholley played his last Test in 1979 and eight years later Castres honoured his immense contribution to French rugby with a testimonial, attended by several Welsh players. The man with the big right hook also proved he had a heart of similar size by donating all the money raised to a mental health charity.
So what about that accolade? Did he take offence at being voted the Most Frightening Frenchman by the Sunday Times, which also described him as “the baddest man ever” Cholley laughs at the question. “No, it’s a compliment! It’s true. In some matches I started on the loose-head and then moved across to the other side if our tight-head was having a problem. I would sort out the problem.”
The days when props resolved their problems without the interference of officials are long gone and Test match rugby has never been cleaner. But Cholley and his generation have no need to apologise for what they did on a rugby field. It was brutal, but it was of its time, and was it anymore brutal than many of the high tackles seen in today’s game? The nature of rugby’s violence has evolved over the decades into something shrewder and arguably more dangerous.
Cholley certainly feels no need to atone. “Let me tell you something,” he says. “In life what matters isn’t whether you’re talked about nicely or badly, but just that you’re talked about.”