France step up to the Championship stage
January 22, 2010
Current Scotland international Ross Rennie celebrates the centenary of the first match between Scotland and France at the Inverleith Ground in Edinburgh © PA Photos
Expansion to six teams a decade ago may lessen the resonance of the anniversary, but it is still well worth noting that this year is the centenary of the Five Nations Championship.
The gradual expansion to five teams begun when England played France in 1906 was completed in 1910 when Scotland became the last of the home nations to grant them a fixture, which was played on the January 22 at Inverleith, Edinburgh.
The French had first sought a match against Scotland in 1907. The challenge was issued by their leading official of the time, Cyril Rutherford, an expatriate Scot, but there was no echo of the Auld Alliance in the Scottish Rugby Union's slow response. It would take three years during which both Wales (1908) and Ireland (1909) launched their rivalries with France.
And when they did finally agree to give the French a game, the SRU still declined to give it full recognition, refusing to award their players caps. They did at least agree to don white shirts to avoid confusion with French blue.
France had already played one match, going down to a 49-14 New Year's Day defeat at Swansea, still the most points they have conceded in a Championship match. Seven players, including Jo Anduran - a forward who allegedly owed his selection to working close to the Gare du Nord when France found themselves about to leave for Wales with only 14 men - were dropped. The replacements included University Club forward Jules Cadenet, who thereby won a bet, struck not long before when he was still playing for their third team, that he could win selection for France.
One French history adds to the list of Scottish slights listed above the suggestion that they fielded a weakened side. It does not look that way. A dozen of the 15 men chosen by Scotland featured for the rest of the season, only one of them failing to play again at international level.
That was wing Ian Robertson, part of an all-Watsonians threequarter line, who was therefore fated never to receive a Scottish cap. One can only hope that scoring two tries in Scotland's 27-0 victory - the third nilling in France's short international history and one of eight they were to suffer before the First World War - served as compensation rather than deepening any sense of injustice.
It was also an extremely memorable day for scrum-half James Tennent, one of three Scottish players destined to become international referees, who claimed a hat-trick while another Watsonian John MacCallum, one of four medics in the team, landed three conversions.
Subsequent fates varied dramatically. Skipper George Cunningham joined the Indian Civil Service and wound up as Sir George. Centre James Pearson died in action in 1915 while his Australian-born partner Alexander Angus returned to become Scotland's first post-war captain in 1920 and referee several internationals as well as playing cricket for Scotland. Wing John Simson and forward Charles Stuart both lived into their 90s.
It was reported of the French that, "the forwards did not play as a pack and their threes did not combine but were keen and fast as individuals. They were all inclined to get offside and tackle opponents who did not have the ball : one claimed a mark from a kick made behind him, but the referee allowed them considerable latitude to keep the game flowing. The Scottish players were first inclined to halt but eventually got the idea and kept on playing until the whistle went."
It has to be questioned whether the visiting team represented the real strength of French rugby. The 1909 French championship final matched Stade Bordelais with Toulouse, while the 1910 edition would see Lyon defeat Bordelais. Yet the Paris clubs continued to dominate the selection, with only four provincials - two each from Lyon and Bordeaux, in the XV.
After missing the Wales match, French captain Marcel Communeau, their best forward of the post-war era, returned to the team. A survivor of the first ever French team in 1906, he was to play a total of 21 matches while Lyon forward Paul Mauriat managed 19. A single victory apiece makes them statistically among the least successful rugby internationals of all time, but also players of evident quality. You have to be good to go on winning selection in a representative team that loses all the time.
Still less successful in this respect was winger Emile Lesieur, never a winner in any of his 12 international matches. National champion at 100 and 400 metres, he was to be decorated for his war services and live for 75 years after playing in this match, dying a few months short of his 100th birthday in 1985. Centre Marcel Burgun and forwards Pierre Guillemin and Rene Boudreaux all fell in the war.
Five of the French XV - Burgun, Guillemin, Communeau, Mauriat and fullback Julien Combe - and six of the Scots were there a year later when France beat Scotland 16-15, their first win over any opponent. There should have been six Frenchmen as well, but threequarter Charles Vareilles, destined for a career as a planter in Indo-China, hopped out of his train for a sandwich at Melun and saw the train leave without him. Not a wise move, but commonsense itself beside the judgment of the SRU, which once more saw fit to withhold caps from its team. It was a mistake that it was not to make again after 1911.