Serge Blanco at 60: Epitomises all that is brilliant and compelling in French rugby

Has anyone epitomised all that is brilliant and compelling in French rugby more than Serge Blanco? Daniel Herrero wrote for many when he described Blanco, who turns 60 on Friday, as “a magician, an artist and a tight-rope walker”. Anyone wanting to know what the much-abused phrase “French flair” really means need only watch the most famous of his 38 tries for France. The winning score in the 1987 World Cup semi-final against Australia in Sydney displayed a melange of teamwork and improvisation rarely seen on any occasion — never mind a contest of such importance. Blanco rearing up from the turf after scoring is perhaps the game’s definitive image of joyful exaltation. Like many of the brilliant performers who have illuminated French sport — think of the footballers Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Michel Platini — Blanco had roots outside the Hexagone. Born in Caracas, Venezuela on Aug. 31 1958, the key moment that brought Blanco to France was one of terrible misfortune; the sudden, premature death of his father Pedro from a heart attack in 1960. Blanco’s mother took the pair back to her native Basque country, where rugby was to be the resounding winner. Serge trained as an engineer with the aerospace giants Dassault and played his first rugby with St Jean de Luz — then a First Division club.

But before long he was identified with Biarritz, the extraordinary old-fashioned sea resort and rugby hotbed perched just north of the border with Spain, forming a lifelong relationship to echo that of Jean Prat with Lourdes.

His playing career, which earned him in a then world-record 93 caps between 1980 and 1991, left behind a highlight reel befitting what Herrero called “a unique personal style which left both fans and the most accomplished opponents baffled”.

One measure of his achievement is French rugby weekly Midi Olympique’s annual Oscars, voted for since 1954 by its writers and readers. Blanco became the first player to win the award in consecutive years in 1982 and 1983 and that youthful brilliance was followed by a full flowering of maturity with four consecutive victories between 1989 and 1992.

Such a level of dominance might be expected perhaps of players like Argentina’s Hugo Porta or Italy’s Sergio Parisse — giants towering above less gifted contemporaries in teams which lose more than they win.

But the 1980s were arguably the high-point of France’s rugby history, bringing a World Cup final, two Grand Slams, a third outright Five Nations championship and three more shared titles.

It also doesn’t seem any coincidence that the seven consecutive seasons, 1983-89, in which France won at least six championship points and lost only four times followed Blanco’s conversion from wing to full-back.

Some held that despite his brilliance, Blanco was fallible under the high ball. It led to a high-risk strategy, since an ill-directed kick left opponents vulnerable to the most dangerous and audacious broken-field attacker of his time. England tested the theory to destruction with a series of up and unders in his final match for France, the World Cup quarterfinal at the Parc des Princes in 1991.

Vice President of the French Rugby Federation, Serge Blanco walks on the pitch before a Pool D match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between France and Italy at Twickenham stadium. FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

Those of us who were there recall an atmosphere which, for tension tinged with venom, has had few equals. French observers saw England pushing the margins of the physically acceptable, while the English talked of French indiscipline. Both, at a distance of 27 years, had a point.

Early in the match Rob Andrew hoisted, Blanco, who was captaining France, called for a mark and England wing Nigel Heslop ploughed into him. Blanco and forward Eric Champ punched Heslop to the ground. To English observers, citing Heslop’s right to make the challenge until the referee had given the mark, this was early evidence of the French unravelling that would culminate in coach Daniel Dubroca manhandling referee David Bishop in the tunnel following their 19-10 defeat.

“I was trampled, kicked and had my head walked on,” Blanco recalled. “So I punched the winger. No, I did not lose my cool. On the contrary I was perfectly aware of what I was doing”. He later remembered the match as “the biggest disappointment of my career. Not because of losing, because of the way that it happened”.

Nor was his club career destined for a happy ending. Getting Biarritz to their first French championship final since 1939 offered the chance of a perfect conclusion. Blanco showed the more familiar, generous, side of his personality in the lead-up to the 1992 final when he appealed to the French Rugby Federation (FFR) to quash the suspension which ruled Champ, captain of adversaries Toulon and a France teammate for many years, out of the match. But the FFR proved immovable, and so did Toulon, winning 19-3.

He retired as the most-capped rugby player of all time, having overtaken Ireland’s Mike Gibson a year earlier, and retained the distinction until 1994 when Sella, a teammate in 72 matches for France edged in front. One record he might retain in perpetuity is that of the longest international career, 93 matches, without any appearances as a replacement.

He remains fourth on the all-time French appearance list, behind Sella, Fabien Pelous and Raphael Ibanez, while his 38 tries remain the French record, ahead of Vincent Clerc (34). That particular record might stand for some time, given that Wesley Fofana’s (15) has the most tries among active players.

All of this might seem enough for a single lifetime, but has instead been the prelude to remarkable post-retirement success in business and rugby politics. Blanco’s name, in an echo of tennis player Rene Lacoste, has become a brand in itself, attached to sportswear and watches.

In rugby he has served two terms totalling 10 years as president of Biarritz — the second ended three years ago when members rejected a merger with local rivals Aviron Bayonnais. Blanco was also president of the French League from 1998 to 2008 and vice-president of the FFR from 2012 until 2016, losing his place when incumbent president Pierre Camou lost to Bernard Laporte. With a different outcome, Blanco might now be president in succession to Camou, who died on Aug. 15.

A great name creates opportunities and opens doors but his shows authentic capability once through. Some have seen a contradiction between the heavyset advocate for the hard-headed, and frequently hard-faced, interests of the French clubs and the lithe, feline rugby idealist of his playing days.

But perhaps not. His commercial mentor, Serge Kampf, who died in 2016, said of Blanco the businessman:” Everything that he sets out to do, he succeeds. He is a genius of anticipation, a born leader.”

The same words might equally describe the player.

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