This isn’t really rugby country in the same way as the southwest of France. Even in Toulon you won’t find quite the passionate commitment they have in Perpignan. And yet the oval ball has its followers here, including many English-speaking expats. They were deeply disappointed, to say the least, by the recent news that Nice’s pro rugby club had collapsed and died, just a few months before it would have celebrated its 100th birthday.
It’s a complicated story which has created a good deal of bitterness. As one veteran French supporter told us, “The players were mostly great guys, management was something else – indecisive, bad on budgeting, with no clear idea on leadership. On top of that, the club’s problems turned it into a bit of a political football, as you might say.” Nice Rugby France – as it was known for short – went down with debts of €1.5 million and that after receiving a load of cash from the City which finally gave up on it. Kiwi Fenner Sneddon in Antibes shrugged when we sought his opinion: “Of course it’s sad but that’s it. At least we’ve still got a couple of leisure teams – in Nice and Monaco. Nice are into Rugby Sevens which I actually prefer to the classic game.” There was sadness, too, among those English-speaking players, here now or previously, who’d worn the Nice rugby shirt. Former Durban Shark Rudy Dames, now back in KZN, was “gutted” when he heard. “I enjoyed my time with them and I really believed they were going places.”
Ironical that this depressing episode should play out on what is sacred ground for rugby enthusiasts. Why so? The alleged inventor of the game – William Webb Ellis – is buried in Menton where he died in 1872, vainly hoping – like many others – that the town’s balmy climate would cure his consumption.
According to the received story, while playing football at Rugby School in 1823 the young Webb Ellis, as is spelled out on his statue in Menton, “picked up the ball and ran with it”. Out of this highly irregular act there emerged the new game of rugby. So why “alleged” inventor? A radical historian of sport has argued that this tale is just eyewash, cooked up by a bunch of Victorian toffs to obscure the fact that their “gentleman’s game” was in fact devised by industrial workers in the Midlands. But don’t bring this up with the Menton Tourist Office – they’ve done rather well out of William Webb Ellis.