Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Inside France's rugby heartland

Mathieu Bastareaud
Mathieu Bastareaud is the latest big star of French rugby

French rugby thrives only in the south-west of France, but Chris Bockman finds unease among fans that attempts to spread its appeal could put the famous French flair at risk.

Fast moving storm clouds over the Bay of Biscay drench the pitch, washing out the white lines. Rubber-studded boots sunk below ankle level in the mud. And still, a dozen boys, aged five to seven practice their rugby skills.

There are no complaints. These are the youngest members of the Castanet Rugby Club.

There are 28 five-year-olds playing in this club. And around 150 try to get in each year.

No one knows how rugby took hold in this part of France.

The most likely explanation is that English sailors, picking up wine in Bordeaux played it at the dockyard, and the game grabbed the locals' attention.

Apart from a few Welsh valleys, this is the only part of Europe where young boys grow up wanting to be rugby stars instead of football players.

Fierce competition

Every year thousands of parents try to get their sons into after-school rugby academies.

The most sought after are those run by Stade Toulouse, Biarritz and Colomiers. Around a third of the French players in this year's Six Nations Cup come from Stade Toulouse alone.

During the open days at the club, it's the parents who are the most nervous. They pace the touchlines while the children are put through their paces.

Young members of the Castanet Rugby
Young members of the Castanet Rugby take friendly matches very seriously

One of the Stade Toulouse selectors - former star player Michel Marfaing, tells me that the competition was so tough that the club sends out pass or fail slips by post, several weeks later. That way, neither the players nor their parents feel shamed on the spot.

In Britain the sport is usually associated with elite private schools - but in this part of France it is more likely to be played by the children of farmers.

People here say that rugby and working the land go hand in hand.

Both involve hard work in all types of weather. And some even say that nurturing a small vine or lamb is similar to bringing out the best in a new player.

Jean Jacques Sadolou has been a member since the Castanet club was founded 40 years ago. A farmer's son, he has a stocky build which has turned into a bulge - possibly the result of the local diet, heavy on duck liver and the meat stew cassoulet, washed down with red wine.

Sadolou says the club is as popular as ever - the trouble is finding the money to keep it running.

It is difficult because there are 170 other clubs, and a total of 34,000 players in the region, also looking for financing.

But on the pitch the squad is thriving. It has now reached the third-highest division and the players get paid - they're semi-professionals.

Still, they don't have to travel far for away games because nearly every club in the top divisions is based in the south west of France.

Uncertain future

Despite its evident popularity, French rugby faces a couple of tough challenges and fans are uneasy. They worry that the game is losing part of its soul.

The French are under pressure to copy the stodgy game played elsewhere that is boring to watch - but ultimately more successful.

You can hear the gripes at the famous "troisieme mi-temps" or the "third half" - the post-game drinking session.

I dropped by the standing-room-only bar, Chez Vincent, in Toulouse after a recent Stade Toulouse match.

There, players mingled with fans, surrounded by glistening fresh scallops, oysters and hanging wild boar sausage, all in the heart of the city's Victor Hugo indoor food market.

The Stade Toulouse faithful were griping: "Why spend a fortune on showy players who spend more time advertising hair gel on TV than in training?"

Others say the game is becoming too professional. Top clubs are stocked with fewer local farm boys and more foreign stars on huge salaries - players who are here this year and gone the next.

One fan, policeman Alain Pietau, who also trains a junior side in his spare time, told me that because of the foreign influx, the famous "French flair" - a fast paced, risk taking and attractive attacking style was disappearing from the game.

Missed opportunity

French players celebrate beating Ireland
Most of the French national team play for clubs from the south west

The French are under pressure to copy the stodgy game played elsewhere that is boring to watch - but ultimately more successful.

The biggest challenge of all may also be the hardest to resolve - the game has yet to capture mass appeal outside this region.

The rugby authorities based in Paris have been trying for years to bridge the gap, with limited success.

France hosted the Rugby World Cup in 2007. That was supposed to be the moment the game would take off as the country rallied around its team. Except things didn't go that way.

The national squad lost its first game to Argentina. They somehow staggered into the semis, but were knocked out by England.

The buzz fizzled out. The rugby revolution didn't happen - and an opportunity was missed.

But if you go to Vincent's bar in Toulouse this weekend you will find plenty of people who will say that's ok - they don't need Parisians to tell them how to run the game.

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