From The Vaults

14 March 2022
Le Crunch, Old Gaytonians, PLESSIS MEUDON and 60 years of sporting frivolity by Connor Dickins

Connor Dickins explores the 60-year relationship that epitomised England Vs France…

'Le Crunch' is a fitting finale to this year's Six Nations. The iconic fixture is certainly one of rugby's greatest contests. Like all big fixtures in rugby, the rivalry is eclipsed by the joint celebration of the game. From 1955-2015, this was epitomised by a friendship between one English club, and one French club. This old-school touring tradition includes musical lumberjacks, Serge Betsen, and of course, drunken anecdotes.

The start of an Anglo-French relationship

Rewind to the 11th February 1955, and English side Old Gaytonians were travelling to France to play Neuilly. Ted Blundell was the link between the clubs. The Old Gaytonian was working for the British embassy in Paris, and regularly playing for Neuilly. Old Gaytonians won the fixture 10-6, but the merry socials at Mayol Music Hall bonded the teams together. So much so, that the French club decided to visit Old Gaytonians just two weeks later in London. This coincided with 'Le Crunch' in the 1955 Five Nations.

This would start a tradition of the clubs meeting up, playing a match, and watching England vs France. It spanned across 60 years. Part of the reason the clubs bonded so well was the hosting arrangements. When the English visited Paris, tourists would stay in the home of one of the French players. The courtesy would be returned when the French visited London. There was no need for hotels either side of the channel. Patrick Delage, a French tourist since 1987, said it was how the teams broke down language barriers: "I didn't learn to speak English at school, but by living with the friends who received me on the tours".

Old Gaytonians eventually became West London in 2000 after merging with Kingsburians and Roxeth Manor. Meanwhile, Neuilly folded in France, with many of the players joining what is now Plessis Meudon. Yet players of the two countries continuously kept in touch and maintained the tradition.

A unique itinerary

West London RFC would usually leave on the Friday before Le Crunch, with adequate alcohol on route. On arrival to Paris, they would meet their French host for the weekend. After getting settled in their host's home, they would ready themselves for the evening celebrations. Top of the host's priorities was to generously pour into the glasses of the tourists. The hope being, that they'll be in no state to win a rugby match the next day!

On the Saturday, the wishful attempt was always an early kick-off. With the beers and wine flowing the night before, a delayed opening whistle was fairly common. The fixture would begin with both teams lining-up and singing their respective anthems like an international. When the opening whistle blew, both sides put their hangovers aside to battle for bragging-rights. Still being a tour fixture though, there were numerous bizarre incidents. During one fixture, the match ball was replaced by a frozen chicken. Perhaps they were paying homage to the French tradition of bringing a cockerel to 'Le Crunch'.

Following the fixture, tourists would venture to the national stadium. The host club would always do their utmost to provide as many tickets for England Vs France as was possible. The clubs would reconvene for more festivities afterwards.

Sundays would conclude the tour, but not before a traditional wine and cheese feast in the clubhouse. It would be accompanied by both teams giving their best renditions of rugby songs. Logically, it was the French who would supply the wine. Some cite the horror of witnessing their English friends mixing wines. Doron Benghozi, a tourist since 1981, was appalled at witnessing Burgundy being added to a glass of Beaujolais!

"Proper touring is doing something unusual which amuses people".

Whether it be court sessions of tequila and absinthe, or players nakedly riding a tandem bike into a mayor's banquet, plenty of drunken tales entrench this relationship's history. One tale comes from Café de la Poste in Paris. The toilets were essentially just a hole in a tightly constrained cubicle. Hooker Terry Jones was frustrated with captain David Nash, with his teammate possessing limited direction in the shared confined space. To resolve this, Jones found a coat hook, and hoisted the captain upon it by his jacket. This solution arguably caused more problems, as Nash fell with an "almighty rumble", bringing down the coat-hook and half an inch of plaster with him!

Yet what makes rugby tours is not just drunkenness, but quirkiness. "Proper touring is doing something unusual which amuses people" as former tourist Nick Dickins explained. Tour dress was an essential tool to unlock the unusual. Dress code was strictly adhered to throughout the tour's history. Alastair MacGillivray, an attendee in 1960, recalls a hungover teammate heavily vomiting. Despite this, he managed to continue wearing his mandatory dress, a square-cut bowler hat. Perhaps the most creative was the theme of 'musical lumberjacks'. Checkered shirts and heavy boots had to be accompanied by a musical instrument. It created quite the scene near the Parc des Princes. French residents of a local tower block allowed one lumberjack, Bruce Duff, to play his bugle on multiple different floors to an open-air crowd of teammates.

Getting lost in the streets of Paris is a common theme in the stories. Numerous accounts in this relationship show that when tourists were lost from their team, another club would take them under their wing. Paul Clancy, a regular tourist, found himself lost from the West London squad. He returned home two days later than his team-mates, after joining the tour of a Norwich club, and travelling back with them.

A lasting friendship to this day

On the 60th anniversary in 2015, a party of players past and present was arranged. Jim O Keefe, the West London RFC Chairman, gifted a framed photo of the original tour to Plessis Meudon. The man to present the award; none other than France and Wasps legend, Serge Betsen. Betsen had kindly agreed to take part after meeting West London stalwart Bobby Power, through their kids playing rugby together.

In the years following, the tradition began to fizzle out. Like many clubs, player numbers declined throughout the decades, meaning it was difficult to get enough tourists. But the friendships continue to this very day. Members of both clubs are in regular contact, and even holiday together on wine-weekends.

"We've decided we're too fat to play rugby now, but we're never too fat to drink wine together", as one former tourist noted.

The impact of the friendship extended far beyond the white lines of rugby pitches. Marriages emerged from the tours, and it taught various players a second language. Former participants continue to praise organisers such as Tony Usher, Jack Hermann, and Pierrot Cettour Rose amongst others. As England Vs France approaches this weekend, nostalgia of this relationship will no doubt arise for former tourists.

Thanks to all those from West London and Plessis Meudon for your assistance. Special thanks to: Doron Benghozi, Didier Bigoin, Bobby Blundell, Patrick Delage, Nick Dickins, Terry Jones, Alastair MacGillivray. Additionally, Martin Flack, whose blog archived much of the tour's history.

About the Author - Connor Dickins is a rugby union writer for LWOS Rugby. As well as covering the Gallagher Premiership and International Rugby, Connor also has a particular interest in developing rugby nations. He continues to play rugby socially for West London RFC.