| Marsh, who has battled and defeated testicular cancer is grateful to the French coach for having had faith in him
Tony Marsh is about as French as the haka. His papers say he left his native New Zealand to play in the rugby stronghold of the south and then used the three-year residency law to stop being a Kiwi. Marsh has entered French society only in the bureaucratic sense. A more weighty truth is that France has entered Marsh.
Talking to him Tuesday at the team hotel overlooking Bondi Beach (where did you expect the French to stay — at an airport Travelodge'), it was obvious that Marsh has followed the rest of us in groping to define his adopted country’s genius with rugby ball in hand. He characterises this talent for the unforeseeable as a thought or an urge that grips the psyche of the whole team.
“They’ve got something very special. When they really decide to get up and play — the French say it’s when they’re scared — then they’re at their best,” Marsh said, doing his best to convert the ephemeral into words. “It’s when they get something in their head and they want to go out and play, they’re very, very hard to beat. Maybe unstoppable.”
If there is a word to paralyse an Englishman in Sydney, this is it: ‘Unstoppable’. French unstoppability has all sorts of manifestations — from Marsh’s recent triumph over testicular cancer, to Christophe Dominici’s victory over the pack of demons that trampled him when a close friend was murdered, his marriage failed and his business went belly up.
But most of all, Les Bleus are unstoppable when the spirit moves them, adversity lights the fuel of French resistance, or some unfathomable impulse makes them want to commit something beautiful to posterity. France are different. You could search all day for a better word to describe them, but what’s the point'
The “Try from the end of the world” against the All Blacks at Eden Park in 1994 was different. The 33 unanswered points against New Zealand in the 1999 World Cup semi-final were certainly different. That heavy percussion of brilliant tries came from a place no other rugby nation has been to or can hope to go. There are no maps and no signposts and no hotels when you get there (which only a Frenchman can). Serge Blanco, the great Gauloise-smoking full-back, once said: “My rugby is instinctive, spiritual.”
You wouldn’t hear that from an English prop.
To peer into the tribal, often violent, unpredictable, art-driven, whim-following world of French rugby is to come out shaking one’s head, and wondering how a match between English wine merchants in Le Havre in the 19th century can have caused Le Jeu Anglais to become such a deep-rooted passion in Gascony and Languedoc, where rugby is synonymous with non-conformism, with Gallic individuality.
Cut to 2003 in Sydney, where Bernard Laporte’s team have achieved some kind of consistency from one game to the next, eradicated indiscipline and high penalty counts, and stopped squabbling over who should be selected and when.
Under the current regime, there are team meetings to air grievances (in 1999, famously, the shadow team were a skulking band of revolutionaries).
In the front-row, Jean-Jacques Crenca no longer needs to be kept in a kennel. “One incident and you’re out,” Laporte told him. Long gone are the days when Wade Dooley and Brian Moore could send the French pack into furies and so take their mind off the job.
So what they have, in the words of the team manager, Jo Maso, is a “very fine mayonnaise” of youth and experience, with an arriviste from Rutoroa on New Zealand’s North Island to provide forceful Kiwi running in the centre.
Marsh, who is 31 and plays for Montferrand, left behind a world of boiling mud pools, hot springs and geysers — a perfect metaphor for French rugby, until the successful implementation of England’s grand design forced the authorities in Paris to become more systematic.
How can you tell when the French are hot' “Steam’s coming off their heads,” Marsh joked. You can understand his levity. Only in May was he told that his cancer had been excised.
After two five-day sessions of chemotherapy, and a long meeting with Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong, who also overcame the disease, Marsh laboured his way back to the point where representing France at the World Cup appeared viable again.
“I’m fortunate to be here. I’m lucky because my cancer was diagnosed quite early, and I responded quickly to the treatment,” Marsh said on Tuesday. “I surprised myself at how quickly I got back into rugby.
The World Cup was a big driving force, a big motivational factor. Bernard and Jo have shown a lot of faith in selecting me. I just want to get on with things and not talk too much about it.”