WHEN Joe French's midnight-oil diplomacy saved the Australian rugby union team's tour of South Africa in August 1992, he earned himself the gratitude of a rugby world that had been beside itself to have the Springboks back in the international fold.
The reality of the Springboks' return had turned out differently from fond expectation when the predominantly Afrikaaner crowd at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, for the South Africa-New Zealand match chose the defiant gesture of singing 'Die Stem' rather than observe a period of silence for the victims of violence.
Australia were due to play the South Africans in Cape Town a week later and the African National Congress was so incensed by what had occurred that it was on the point of aborting the Australians' final week. At which point enter the diminutive figure of French, president and chairman of the Australian Rugby Football Union.
With the Australian players ready - and in some cases only too happy - to leave immediately for London to make their connection to Sydney, it was French who persuaded the ANC not to rescind its approval of the tour. It was French who insisted on assurances that there would be no repeat of 'Die Stem' and that the minute's silence would this time be respectfully observed.
And so it came to pass. Indeed, without French it is possible that the world rugby order would still even now not include South Africa. It was his crowning moment as a rugby administrator and of a lifetime devoted to rugby union.
French attended one of Brisbane's most illustrious rugby schools, St Joseph's College, and during a distinguished playing career with the Brothers club was the Queensland state side's full-back in 1935 and 1936. He went on to coach Brothers to five Brisbane championships, coached Queensland in the late Forties and early Fifties and was later a long-time state and national selector.
When he became ARFU president in 1988, Australian rugby was in a state of flux after the Wallabies' failure to win the 1987 World Cup and the replacement of the voluble Alan Jones with the more studious Bob Dwyer as coach. These were anxious times but under the benign tutelage of French and others the game prospered as never before both from the playing side - Australia were to win the next World Cup in 1991 - and financially.
Indeed a footballing code that had consistently lost out in popularity to rugby league and Australian Rules and was consequently forever strapped for cash grew so far and fast with French as president that the ARFU's turnover multiplied four times in as many years. He spotted the necessity for rugby union to get on the commercial and marketing bandwagon, not least so that funds could be generated with which to keep supposedly amateur union players out of the clutches of the overtly professional league. A measure of his success is that defections of international players have more or less dried up.
French may not have bestrode rugby like his late South African contemporary Danie Craven, but in his way he did almost as much, and quite a lot more in recent times. And now that he has gone the ARFU has already demonstrated his irreplaceability by indicating that the roles of president and chairman will be separated at its annual meeting in January.
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