We live in among them, hugely enjoy their company, marvel at their food and our taste buds salivate at their wines. But do we really know them?
Not in a million years, believes English sports writer Peter Bills. And he has known many of France’s leading rugby players for best part of 40 years.
Peter, who has a long career in journalism and twice won awards for his writing on the oval ball sport, has just had published his autobiography entitled 400 Words at 5.30 with Nannies: Inside the Lost World of Sports Journalism (UK: Pitch Publishing Ltd).
And with the Rugby World Cup, which kicked off in England on September 18th, 2015, (it runs to October 31st when the final will be held at Twickenham), it is a propitious moment to release his fascinating life story.
By the first day of November, France could be rugby world champions. After all, they only lost the 2011 Rugby World Cup final to New Zealand, in Auckland, by a single point … 8-7. Yet they could have slunk home to their clubs, Gallic tails between legs, weeks earlier.
That, says Peter, is the triumph of French rugby. You just never know what they are going to do next.
The author recounts his own times sharing the company of great French rugby men, like the late French coach Jacques Fouroux, known as “one of the most influential figures in French rugby history”, and former captain Jean-Pierre Rives. The latter asked the Englishman to write his autobiography, a decision that went down like a lead balloon with the local French media.
“It was like Josephine going off for a night with a Lord from the English shires,” Peter writes. The locals felt snubbed, abandoned.
But Rives was like most Frenchmen. Wonderful company, a charming host but extraordinarily unpredictable. You never knew what would happen next, claims Peter, citing the times he worked with Rives and stayed with him at his Paris apartment.
Jean-Pierre could never remember anything from his rugby playing days. It wasn’t that he was being obstructive but he was no longer interested. He had moved on to other things in his life.
One day, he recounts, he was trying to fire up Rives’s memory when the French rugby man announced they must go to the airport. They were having dinner in Geneva with a friend. But traffic jams held no interest for Rives. Thus, their hopes of making the flight on which they were booked, proved nonexistent, even with an English sports writer driving wildly and dangerously.
“You are a mad driver, just like the French,” Rives announced at one stage of the journey. Peter took it as a badge of honour.
But, he points out, travelling with Jean-Pierre Rives in those days meant there was always a solution. Rives not only managed to persuade a charming young lady at check-in to switch Peter Bills and himself onto the next flight free of charge, he sweet-talked her into allowing them to drag Rives’s golf clubs onto the plane as cabin baggage.
And when they got to Geneva? They drove for an hour up into the hills and tumbled out into an Alpine chalet where Rives’s friend awaited. F1 motor racing driver Alain Prost. Just another day in the life of Rives.
Peter Bills’s time with Jacques Fouroux was equally memorable, if potentially ruinous to the writer’s health, given the industrial amounts of food and wine that were always shared on such occasions.
He has covered every Rugby World Cup to date, the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Ashes cricket tours of England, soccer Cup finals in England and Europe, US Open and Augusta Masters golf tournaments and other major sporting events. His book takes you inside a world of sports reporting which has always been the envy of most sports-mad males.
But Peter Bills met and interviewed so many more than just French rugby players. He once got an exclusive with former South African President Nelson Mandela at his home in Johannesburg, as well as Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki.
He interviewed English actor Oliver Reed and tells a hilarious story of how Reed ended up pushing the journalist’s car to jump start it in pouring rain at his Surrey mansion.
Peter’s book also provides a revealing insight into the lives of the stars as he interviewed in person – Spike Milligan, Jack Nicklaus, Don Bradman, Gary Player, George Best, Denis Compton amongst a long list of others – and has written 16 books, including autobiographies with rugby legends like Willie John McBride, David Campese, Sir Gareth Edwards, former BBC rugby commentator Bill McLaren.
400 Words at 5.30 with Nannies: Inside the Lost World of Sports Journalism, a great Christmas gift for any sports enthusiasts among family and friends, is a light-hearted read, full of funny anecdotes about his time touring the world to write and report on various sports.
Pick up a copy at Antibes Books or the English Book Centre in Valbonne. The e-book is also available from Amazon.