Rugby Union: Blanco heads mission to unite Europe

EXCLUSIVE: A legend of world rugby is wielding his influence in the political arena. By Alex Hayes in Paris
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The Independent Online
Just as anyone can tell you where they were when JFK was shot in 1963, so too most can recall their exact location when Philippe Saint- Andre scored that try at Twickenham in the Five Nations' decider in 1991. The man who started that incredible French move certainly remembers it well: "England were favourites and we were written off, so we wanted to show them we could play. When [Simon] Hodgkinson missed the penalty, everyone expected us to take a 22 drop-out, but I saw the gap on the right and went for it." Nearly eight years on, Serge Blanco is still a visionary. But whereas he was sometimes criticised for shying away from physical contact on the pitch, off it he is tackling the problems facing the game head on.

I met the recently elected President of the French League in his new Paris office during the week. In it are a desk, two chairs and a phone. There are no paintings, no plants, no rugby trophies. Much like the man himself, this is a no-nonsense zone. Capped 93 times by his country between 1980 and 1991, Blanco was arguably the greatest back of his generation, if not in history. Always the innovator and never predictable, Blanco - now 40 - has re-emerged on the world stage at a critical time for the sport. During our meeting, he set out his blueprint for the future of rugby. He spoke honestly about the chances of a northern hemisphere team winning the World Cup, the conflict in Europe, the state of the English game, and the need for a total, global restructuring. This is rugby according to Blanco.

"I honestly believe that, for the first time in over 10 years, the Five Nations' will be tight," says the man who won two Grand Slams during the French-dominated Eighties, in his Basque lilt. "England and France are favourites, but Wales are improving all the time and Ireland are full of promising young players [especially at the more junior levels]. This year's winner will be a worthy champion and a great ambassador for Europe in the World Cup."

As far as Blanco is concerned, the new professional era is the main reason why so many nations - Ireland and Wales in the northern hemisphere; England and France compared to southern hemisphere teams - are closing the gap and improving so dramatically. "Money and organisation mean that we now look forward. For too long we were reactive rather than proactive. We hesitated while the other [southern] hemisphere went full steam ahead. Only when we realised how successful the Super 12 tournament was, did we kick into gear. That is why we don't yet have a comparable infrastructure to theirs. They are several steps ahead."

Though Blanco blossomed during the amateur era, he believes the northern hemisphere must now embrace the professional approach of the antipodeans. "The Super 12 enables them to play competitive rugby and improve. If we want the same thing, we need a big European competition, whatever its format." Blanco sees similarities between the recent changes in rugby and football. "Football championships have become more competitive because there are European places up for grabs at the end of each season. It really motivates players. This is exactly what rugby needs."

Before Blanco's European dream becomes reality, though, he will have to persuade the English clubs as well as Cardiff and Swansea - maybe as soon as Friday's meeting between Blanco and Tom Walkinshaw, the English clubs' representative, in Paris - to end their self-imposed exile from the European Cup. The stand-off arose because the European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC) - the company who organise and run the tournament - handle all commercial matters on behalf of the national unions, and have, so far, refused to review the matter. At present, all profits from the European Cup are returned to the unions for distribution to the clubs as they see fit, whereas the English want all profits from the games to go to the clubs directly. If, for some, the conflict has reached the point of no return, Blanco remains upbeat: "There are no problems, only solutions. Things are actually quite simple. Either there is a European competition and we can live and prosper or there is not and our rugby dies."

As to whether French clubs would follow the English in a breakaway competition, Blanco is less forthcoming: "We are not at that stage yet. I wouldn't say that it's secondary because it may be an issue in the future, but what is the ERC's crime? Why does the ERC bother English clubs? Is it because they mismanage the competition; because they are bad organisers? Or is it because they don't distribute the moneys fairly or some of the members are abusing their powers? English clubs stated that they would not play under the ERC but wanted to remain under the jurisdiction of the unions. Well, the ERC is a microcosm of the unions made up of representatives from all five nations, is it not?"

Blanco's personal dealings with the ERC have actually proved rather fruitful, which may help to explain why he believes there is still hope. "We [the French clubs] made some demands at the beginning of the season. We asked for meritocracy, voting rights within the ERC and a fair share of the moneys. And we got a 'yes' for all three. Now, I believe that these questions are not very far off what the English might want as well; and would get."

Despite the challenges lying ahead, Blanco is at pains to point out that a solution can be found. "There seems to be some kind of friction, and that's where we need to find the answers. I know what those answers are, but it is not for me to reveal them for others. All that I can tell you is that the English clubs' gripe with the ERC is not a financial one."

Is it imperative that French clubs stay in the ERC?

"In the short term, yes. In the longer term, we will see. The bottom line is why doesn't one nation want to stay within the ERC?"

So if English clubs don't come back under the ERC, will French clubs play in the European Cup next year anyway?

"Let me tell you that we have options. If we are not in the European Cup, we will go elsewhere. I won't tell you where, but let it be said that I'm not panicking. Of course I want the English and two Welsh clubs to come back into Europe. Without them the competition is devalued. But as the President of the League, I will protect the interests of my clubs and will only take a position which is in their best interests."

Would French clubs ever join their English counterparts in a "rebel" European competition?

"Look, we are free to do as we please. With a black president, one is free."

So it is not impossible?

"Impossible n'est pas Francais."

Blanco is generally positive and enthusiastic about the state of rugby, though he does worry (aside from the European question) about certain aspects of the world game. Not least the way in which the game is run in England: "One of the main reasons why I believe we need a European competition is because we don't have the same infrastructure as you. We don't have benefactors who pump money into clubs. All our clubs are self- financed through sponsorship, TV money, ticket sales and merchandising. Unlike you, we cannot float our clubs on the stock exchange and raise money in that way. Without a European tournament our clubs simply cannot survive. Though, quite frankly, neither can yours.

"Basically, French clubs are financially sound. They are not in debt, play competitive rugby and produce excellent players. English clubs have been bought by rich men who, if things go wrong, might walk away. I mean no disrespect to Sir John Hall, but he bought Newcastle for business reasons and expects some return on his investment. Unfortunately, English rugby makes no money at the moment because there is a lack of leadership and structure. Just look how often the league size and format, or the relegation and promotion issues, have been changed recently. The time will come when benefactors count their losses and jump ship. And then what?"

Another serious issue for Blanco is refereeing. "We cannot continue in this way. It needs to be standardised at every level and throughout the world. Rules must not only be the same for everyone, they must also receive the same interpretation. For example, southern hemisphere referees allow a player to run in front of a team-mate who is in possession. In the northern hemisphere, that's offside. The other hemisphere will say that if you stop the game too often, it ruins the spectacle. I say you cannot try to entertain by allowing people to cheat."

Despite some reservations, the man who inspired France to the inaugural World Cup final in Auckland in 1987, believes a European nation may finally lift the Webb Ellis trophy in 1999. "Anything is possible. But teams such as France, England and Wales - who have made great strides - must enter the tournament with only one thing in mind: 'We will be world champions'." Blanco may be reminding us that he is a born winner, but few can forget that he is also an artist at heart. "Northern hemisphere teams must not play negatively and go for all-out defending. That is not what rugby is about. Of course they have to be courageous but they must also show a willingness to play."

And for the one-time Biarritz full-back, who was the reference for all aspiring No 15s, the present South African side are the model to emulate today: "They are the one team who give me pleasure because of their movement. They can mix running rugby with hard tackling, multi-phase-play and tactical kicking. They remind me of the rugby I played and love." While Blanco is full of praise for the Springboks, he is more critical of the All Blacks. "They play too much like a rugby league side. They are very physical and just look to carry the ball into the challenge at every opportunity in the knowledge that, sooner or later, the opposition will tire and the defence can be breached. As for Australia, they appear to be caught between two stools. They are desperately trying to decide whether they should adopt the New Zealand or South African style of play and are suffering as a result."

Not content with steering French rugby into the professional era and helping English clubs out of their present crisis with the ERC, the man who revolutionised rugby on the field now has a clear vision for its future off it. "I want the best teams from the domestic championships to meet in a European competition and for the top teams from there then to enter a world club tournament. That would guarantee worldwide investment, interest and returns. To achieve this, though, we need to scrap the current ridiculous structure.

"You can't have a championship from August to June which is constantly interrupted by European and Five Nations' matches or one-off internationals. It's crazy. The southern and northern hemispheres both play rugby for 11 months a year, so why don't we synchronise our tournaments. Of course, we must keep our rugbies separate - otherwise the game is no longer interesting - but let's make sure that our seasons concur. It's simple: we play our domestic championships when they do, we play the European competition when they play the Super 12, and we play the Five Nations when they play the Tri-Nations series. That leaves nine weeks for rest, seven weeks for one-off Tests and three weeks for a world club competition."

Blanco may have a twisted logic when it comes to smoking (the 30-a-day man quit the day he retired), but his vision of rugby is as sharp now as it always was. Allez le bleu-print.

BLANCO'S BLUEPRINT

'It may be crazy but it's honest and achievable'

Northern hemisphere Southern hemisphere

rugby timetable rugby timetable

Domestic club Domestic club

championship championship

Played over 19 weeks concurrently

European club Super 12 club

championship championship

Played over nine weeks concurrently

Five Nations Tri-Nations

Played over five weeks concurrently

Joint northern/southern hemisphere events

Test series and tours

Played over seven weeks

World club competition

Played over three weeks

Nine-week close-season rest

period for players

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