The All Blacks’ quarter final re-run with France triggered all the old clichés about French flair, style and unpredictability. Is it really a myth? And if the flies switch donkeys . . . is that good?
Prime TV and Sky screened a new documentary last week which celebrated Pacific Island nations at the World Cup, their ability to beat the odds – and teams from bigger countries.
The All Blacks had just brushed aside Tonga, meaning all the Pacific Island teams were out already with just one win between them.
Over and over, Pacific Warriors referred to their fast-running, heavy hitting style of play . . . and a fondness for fast food. Self-styled alternative rugby commentator Jed Thian appeared in the documentary to say:
New Zealand was conquered by religious extremists. Australia was conquered by criminals. The Islands were basically conquered by fast food . . .
It was said with a sigh and with tongue-in-cheek, but it was one of many references to takeaways.
“A popular diet of theirs is whiskey and KFC,” said England rugby player Nick Easter. “I’m not sure I’ll be too popular for saying that, but they do like it”.
And the media certainly like their stereotypes. When the Exeter branch of chicken chain Nandos tweeted that the Tongan team had dined there ten days in a row during the World Cup, it made headlines. Pretty galling for the many Pacific Island rugby professionals playing in top leagues around the world who don’t guzzle fried chicken and stay in good shape.
Black and Bleu
But for stereotypes, even that was put in the shade when it became clear New Zealand will face France in a Cardiff quarter-final. Again.
First came the deluge of deja-vu. It seemed like every journalist who was there in 2007 exhumed their memories, and then asked the All Blacks' old hands to do the same at this week’s mostly pointless press conferences. The prospect of Wayne Barnes reffing the rematch prompted The Herald to say:
You can almost hear the nation's knees playing cymbals now. The final touch of adding Barnes to the mix may be too much for the faint-hearted."
But the big fear was of “French flair” and "unpredictability". It seemed almost mandatory for the media to use one or the other at least once in every article this past week.
And even the absence of flair was worth a headline . . .
Flies and donkeys: the French perspective
So is French flair just a cliche? A myth? Or something that can’t be denied?
Waikato University lecturer Fabrice Desmarais, who has lived here for nearly twenty years, has looked more closely at coverage of this fixture in recent years than anyone else. In 2008, along with professor Toni Bruce, he analysed every Bleus v Blacks test from 1994 to 2004, as broadcast on both New Zealand and French TV.
In their study A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Rugby Commentary they found New Zealand commentators reverted to “the stereotype of unpredictability” – and some tortured logic - to explain unexpected defeats:
“Well, the only thing we predicted about the French game is how unpredictable it can be. And they haven’t surprised us . . ."
Sky TV, 2004
The following year Mr Desmarais interviewed key TV commentators and pundits in both countries for The Power of Stereotypes and concluded pressure on Kiwi commentators to connect with the audience caused “a reliance on pre-established narratives that draw heavily on stereotypes”.
Mr Desmarais said the 1999 semi-final upset in England “triggered an extended period of confusion in New Zealand in relation to French rugby style” and New Zealand commentators “started to timidly acknowledge France’s ability to play a structured game.”
But during a test five years later, he noted Sky’s studio host still struggled to produce "a coherent representation of the French team”.
Having a laugh
Fabrice Desmarais described New Zealand test match commentaries as “focused, analytical, and serious” because the viewers understood the game very well - or at least thought they did. But in recent years, it has lightened up considerably with presenters, guests and co-commentators encouraged to crack jokes.
Ironically, this brings it closer to the French TV style Mr Desmarais described.
“French commentary (is) not only more talkative but also less focused on the game,” he said. “Because rugby is not central to French identity, it is not necessary to take the game particularly seriously . . . even in the tensest moments”.
Commentators catchphrases inspired by Occitan, an original language in southern France’s rugby heartland, have become famous across the whole country.
La cabane est tombée sur le chien
- The shed fell on the dog
. . . describes an event that seals the outcome of the game.
Les mouches ont changé d’ane
- The flies have switched donkeys
. . . means the momentum has moved from one team to the other.
They are funny phrases that raise a laugh in France, but may further fuel that fear of French flair and unpredictability here.