The only master after God
May 19, 2011
Sebedio was one of only four French players to win caps before and after the First World Wa © Rugby-Pioneers.com
News that the French government is to lift their nearly century-old ban on absinthe would undoubtedly have been toasted with a glass of something strong by Jean 'Le Sultan' Sebedio, a colourful character even by the high standards set by the provincial game in France.
Henri Garcia recalls in his Les Contes de Rugby that while, like many men, Sebedio began his day with a glass of water, he was also wont to add a tumbler of absinthe. Opponents invited to join for him a drink were likely to be presented with a beer glass…of cognac.
The wonder perhaps is not that Sebedio died comparatively young, a once formidable frame shrunk to less than eight stone, than that his physical resources withstood this onslaught by pure alcohol sufficiently to support a decade-long international career and a vivid coda as coach.
He was also a highly significant figure in the evolution of the French game as it developed socially as well as geographically. Early international players from the provinces were drawn from much the same classes - students, lawyers and other prosperous professionals - as the Paris-based forerunners. Historian Phil Dine points to Sebedio, a Basque from St Jean de Luz, as the first working-class player chosen for France.
Garcia leaves a vivid portrait of Sebedio as a stocky figure of medium height with "a head like Danton, a huge bull neck and an extraordinary athletic body"' who could "play in virtually every position in the team, such was his strength, speed, agility and skill". His first three caps for France were won in three different positions - prop, flanker and No.8 - and he packed down in all three lines of the scrum.
He combined his power and ferocity with the ball skills of a man who was French national champion in the formidably fast basque sport of Pelota (called chistera in France) in 1920. That was also the year when his international career peaked as a member of the first French team to win an away Five Nations match, defeating Ireland 15-7 in Dublin.
He and Marcel Lubin-Lebrere, two of the four French players who also had won caps before the war, led a forward effort that eclipsed the Irish. Midi Olympique's centenary history of the French XV records that his efforts ensured a miserable afternoon for another veteran, Ireland's 34-year-old scrum-half Stanhope Polden.
Sebedio's was an odd international career. He was picked for France's first match every season from 1913 to 1923, but never played more than three times in a single year and won only nine caps in all, four of them against Scotland but none against Wales.
His true fame rests on his role in the club game, before the war with the rising Tarbes club and afterwards as captain-coach of Carcassonne. His nickname came from war service in Syria, but was perfectly fitted to his style as player and coach. There was nothing personal in his persecution of Polden. He offered the same treatment impartially to every opponent - and referees. Garcia reports that at Carcassonne he was "the only master after God and well ahead of the referee".
This was not always done with impunity. A referee's report following a sensational cup brawl against Toulouse, provoked by Carcassonne but with plentiful retaliation by their opponents said that Sebedio had incited his players and crowd and "insulted me constantly". A 12-month ban followed, but in 1925 he led Carcassonne to their only ever French Championship final, which they lost 5-0 to Perpignan in a replay following a 0-0 draw first time around. Former international Geo Andre described it as "a battle royal" and "a match of brutes".
When he stopped playing, Sebedio moved on to Lezignan, where he built a team described by Garcia as memorable "as much for its dynamism as for its brutality". His training regime was, as Dine says 'unusual to say the least'. Garcia recorded that "having already lost a good deal of his vitality as a result of frighteningly excessive drinking, he cultivated his persona by sitting in the middle of the pitch with a long whip and a wide sombrero, making his players run round him like circus horses."
That Lezignan were particularly formidable at home may or may not have had something to do with Sebedio keeping a human skeleton, with a whistle stuck between its jaws, in the referee's room and informing visiting officials that it was "the last referee to give a penalty against Lezignan."
Again in 1929 he took his team to the French final, to perhaps the unlikeliest pairing of contenders ever to make it to the final, against Quillan, a village only a few miles from Lezignan whose team was funded by wealthy hat manufacturer Jean Bourrel. The combined population of the two communities was around 9,000.
When Lezignan scored an early try, Sebedio stood in front of the presidential box, took out his wallet and scattered several notes, shouting "You see, money is not everything in rugby". But Quillan won a match reported as concluding "amid squalid brawling" 11-8 and Lezignan, like Carcassonne, were never as close again. Both were to join the shift to rugby league in the mid 1930s, while Quillan compete to this day in the lower reaches of the French league system.
Sebedio died aged 60 in June 1951, but memories lived on sufficiently for a particularly ferocious Toulon training routine in the 1970s and 1980s to be named after him. The fate of the skeleton is unknown, although reports from last weekend suggest it might be worth looking for it at Welford Road.
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