The most tiresome cliché in rugby is that you never know which French team will turn up. When Tony Marsh was in the side, it was almost always a great one.
His international stint was short, just three years including one perfect Six Nations campaign. But in that time he managed to fit in more than most manage in a career.
Marsh played every minute of France’s 2002 Grand Slam, the first in the Six Nations era. The centre was then diagnosed with testicular cancer – having to initially deny doping allegations before the illness came to light – and went through chemo in time to make France’s World Cup campaign in 2003.
By the end of 2004, when he had again overcome injury to earn a Test recall, Marsh bowed out of international rugby, fittingly against New Zealand, the country of his birth.
He had arrived in France in 1998 with no ambitions of playing international rugby, but just hoping to get an experience of a different culture with ASM Clermont.
In fact, having played for New Zealand A, he was not sure if he was even eligible. But by 2001, it became clear that he could play for France and he was called up by Bernard Laporte.
There was some controversy over a Kiwi being called up, and even Marsh felt pressure to justify his selection. As it turned out, that did not take long as France racked up the wins with the Rotorua-born centre in the midfield.
He recalls: “I came into the French team at an interesting time, Bernard Laporte had come in as coach and wanted to change things a little bit. A lot of the older players went and he brought in a new breed of young player and he brought in a style of rugby that the French in some ways weren’t used to playing.
“He brought in some structure and some discipline, so it was interesting times being in that French team. Along with those young players, you had a lot of experience as well. You had Rafa Ibanez, Fabien Pelous, Olivier Magne, Serge Betsen, those guys who had been in the fray for quite a long time, and then there were the younger, fresher guys who had a lot of talent. But he changed the way we played with a lot more structure.
“When I debuted I think we won our first eight games. It definitely helped that it was an environment that was reasonably successful, we were winning so it made it a lot easier for myself and for the French team to justify my selection.”
After three wins in the autumn, including a 14-13 success over world champions Australia, in which Marsh scored the only try, France went into the 2002 Championship as contenders.
England, having narrowly missed out on Grand Slams in each of the previous three seasons, were unquestionably the favourites, however, with the teams set to meet in Round 3.
For all the structure and discipline that Laporte had brought in, there were still some aspects of their preparation that felt like they belonged in a previous era.
As Marsh explains: “We used to train at Chateau Ricard which was out near Clairefontaine where the French football team were. During that whole Six Nations, we only trained on a rugby field two or three times.
“Normally we trained on the village football field or we would go to Clairefontaine and play on the football fields there. So the only times we trained on a rugby field were when we went away, so in Scotland or Wales when we had our team run. When I say it to people now they laugh but that was how it was back then.”
France had opened their campaign against Italy, with a now legendary half-time talk from Laporte inspiring a second-half performance that made up for an insipid first 40 minutes in a 33-12 success.
Marsh then scored two tries in a thrilling 37-33 victory in Cardiff before Le Crunch. England, fresh from thumping wins over Scotland and Ireland, were overwhelming favourites.
But while many remember that game as the day Serge Betsen hounded Jonny Wilkinson for the 75 minutes he was on the field, Marsh’s memory is more of a performance where everything went right.
He recalls: “If I’m honest, the game that stands out from all of them is the English game. At the time England were deemed to be the best team in the world and the team that went on to win the World Cup. But I think when the French play the English, there is a lift in their game or something else which comes up. Being an outsider, so to speak, to see it was really different. To see them motivate themselves. On that day, you could feel the team lifted another couple of notches leading into it during the game.
“It was a funny game because we had trained really well all week. And then when we got out on the field, the first 40 minutes just seemed like a training run. Everything we had done happened, it went really well. It wasn’t easy but everything went to plan. I think Jason Robinson scored prior to half-time which changed things a little bit but in terms of the game, especially the first 40 minutes, I felt we were in control.”
France ran out 20-15 winners, but that scoreline did not do justice to how convincing a win it was, Ben Cohen’s late try salvaging some pride for the visitors.
CLINCHING THE SLAM
Marsh grabbed a second double of the campaign in Scotland in a 22-10 victory but a calf injury in the build-up to the Ireland game threatened to curtail his campaign.
In reality, Marsh was never going to miss that game though and in the Paris sunshine France were at their glorious best, running out 44-5 winners.
“It wasn’t really until that last game, towards the end of it, that it sunk in that we were going to do the Grand Slam. Winning the Six Nations is one thing, but completing the Grand Slam is something else and to be part of that was pretty special.
“Bernard had analysed the Ireland team very well, we brought in some new plays and some new structure around the game and how we wanted to play it. We scored some really good tries that day. So even by half-time, I wouldn’t say it was in the bag but we had a reasonable lead, 30-odd points. We were on a bit of a roll by then. We were a pretty well-drilled team and a lot of things we did came off. And so we had the confidence that by then, we could probably just about beat anyone on our day.”
With eight wins from as many Tests, Marsh could not have hoped for a better start to his international career.
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By the 2003 Championship however, he had rather bigger concerns. Routine check-ups at Clermont had shown some unusual hormone levels, to the point that Marsh was having to explain himself to management.
He said: “It was quite funny because initially we got check-ups every three months and bloods and so on. I had a couple of blood tests that weren’t right. They weren’t right because it changed my hormone level, so I got hauled up into the manager and president’s office and asked whether I was taking drugs. That was obviously a huge concern.
“They took me for further tests and it was only then that they realised I might have an issue. So I ended up going to Paris, got diagnosed as having a tumour. And then had that removed and went onto have six weeks of chemo.
“The big thing to that was that I got it nice and early and I always knew I was going to be fine. The fact that I was in France in some respects made it easier. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, there’s potentially a lot of negativity around it and people are worried about you, whether that be family or friends, understandably. But I didn’t have to deal with that, I just wanted to get on with it and do my treatment and focus on rugby.
“So I started my chemo in March and had six weeks of it and then went to a World Cup in September, six months later. My build-up was definitely impacted by that. I had been training well but just prior to going into our two-month build-up, I tore a calf and missed six weeks of training camp.
“I discussed with the doctor about actually pulling out but decided to persist and ended up on Aussie soil. I had a few issues with my Achilles which was playing up and getting inflamed. By the end of the World Cup six weeks later, I was struggling to walk, let alone run. Looking back I probably shouldn’t have gone to that World Cup and especially towards the latter stages it did impact on my play. The overall picture to that was you’re in a World Cup rugby competition and you’re not able to play at your peak, it’s a little bit disappointing.”
FRIENDSHIP WITH IBANEZ
After calling time on his playing career in 2007, Marsh returned to New Zealand and now works in real estate on the North Island.
But while time differences mean that he struggles to catch many of the current French side’s exploits, he has still played his part in the development of the team thanks to an opportunity for former teammate and current France team manager Raphaël Ibanez.
He explains: “Rafa reached out, it must have been in 2019. He wanted experience down in New Zealand. He had finished his stint down in Bordeaux and he wanted time out and just to do something different.
“Leon Holden, who played at Wasps, and myself put him in touch with Thames Valley which is a third division team who play in the Heartland competition.
“It was quite interesting because I caught up with Rafa a number of times. I think he got the full experience. He ended up in Coromandel in a little township called Whangamata which is a holiday location. It’s a great place, the people are really friendly and him and his family really integrated into that little town really well. Along with the rugby, Rafa’s a keen surfer, he’s a keen fisher and hunter so he got amongst that as well which I think he really enjoyed.
“He spoke to me about the differences in rugby and a lot of it was based about culture. He’d definitely put a lot of thought into what he could take away and where he thought he could change things and improve things in that French environment. I don’t know if that potentially is some of what he’s taken on but within the last couple of years you’ve seen a huge change in that French team, the way they play and the camaraderie and they’re getting the results. There’s been a huge shift which for someone like me is really good to see.
“It seems with Fabien Galthié and Rafa at the helm, they’ve created some consistency, they are playing some good rugby and getting the results that they should have been getting for quite some time.
“It’s no surprise that the guys have kicked on with their coaching careers. You can probably argue that both of them have had mixed bag coaching careers at club level, but they’ve obviously found their groove in that French environment and kicked on so I’m really stoked for them.”
Indeed they are, and just as when Marsh was at his peak at the heart of Les Bleus’ midfield, it seems we have reached a time once again where that dreaded cliché no longer applies.