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A Riot in Paris

A pictorial representation of the game by W van Hasselt (courtesy of F Humbert)

New year’s day 1913, Parc des Princes, Paris . After what one would imagine was a relatively quiet Hogmanay the Scottish fifteen were scheduled to meet France in the first international of their season. It was to be only the fourth meeting of the two sides. Two years previously, the last time that the Scots had ventured to Paris , the rugby world had been stunned by their sixteen points to fifteen defeat at the Stade de Colombes. To date this remained France ’s only international victory. The two sides other meetings at Inverleith in Edinburgh had been perhaps predictably one sided affairs with the Scots winning easily. The partisan home crowd, in excess of twenty thousand for this game, may even so have hoped for or even expected a repeat winning performance.

As it transpired this was to be a forlorn hope. The French side played well, in particular their pack had the better of the play in the second half, but overall they lacked a shade of technical nuance that the Scots enjoyed. Furthermore they failed to capitalise on the chances that they enjoyed which was a charge that could not be levelled at the Scots. It was accepted that the French were improving year after year, but they still lacked the composure and skill to be truly competitive at the international level. As the game progressed the Scots gradually drew away to a twenty one points to three lead. Reports of the game concede that the run of play was far close than the score suggested; that the Scots were flattered by it and the French were unlucky to be on the wrong end of such a defeat, but such it was.

The match had been refereed by James ‘Bim’ Baxter, who was a former England international himself having gained three caps in 1900. Overall he was to have an interesting career. He had taken silver in the twelve meter sailing class at the 1908 London Olympics. Later he would be President of the Rugby Football Union in 1926-7 and manage the 1930 British Lions tour to New Zealand , where he would cause controversy over his condemnation of the All Blacks ‘Rover’ system that utilized a detached forward. Today he had been busy. Whether due to Gallic passion or a still less than perfect grasp of some of the subtleties of the game France frequently infringed. Baxter, as perhaps befitted an international meeting was fairly strict in his own interpretations and penalised them with equal frequency. As the score began to rise so the crowds temper began to fray. Baxter’s whistle was soon drowned out by the derision of the spectators. It has been mooted that misinterpreting the crowd’s cat calls Baxter smiled and waved to them, which inflamed them all the more and that often lacking even the most basic appreciation of the laws of the game most of the crowd could quite simply not understand why their national side was being so harshly disciplined. Even if true it is fair to say that these could in no way excuse the crowd’s subsequent behaviour.

As the final whistle blew a large number of spectators, some would say more than half, stormed the pitch, mobbing both the referee and the Scottish team. Some of the Scots were hit by flying stones, although fortunately none received serious injury. Baxter himself was physically assaulted and at least one assailant arrested as Gendarmes, both mounted and on foot, struggled both to restore order and bundle the referee and players to safety. It was in all a dark day in the history of rugby.

Condemnation of the crowd’s behaviour was swift, not least in France . By the day after the game both Le temps and Le Figaro had accepted implicitly that the referee of a game had the right to judge it as he saw fit and that his decisions should be accepted in the spirit of the game. By January 11th the French central rugby committee were being warned that essentially their continued existence in the international arena depended upon the referee being afforded the respect that his position demanded. The French authorities quite publically stated their regret regarding the incident and issued an appeal to spectators to refrain from such demonstrations again as they would invariably damage sport in France . These sentiments were echoed when an emissary from the French Rugby union travelled to Glasgow to a meeting of the International Board to formally state their sorrow.

England , Ireland and Wales were prepared to leave it at that, although France may have been considered to be on some form of unofficial probation. The Scots themselves were less forgiving, electing to refuse further matches with France . In a letter to Cyril Rutherford, foreign secretary to the central rugby committee of the Union Sportive Francaise des Sports Athletiques they outlined their decision at the end of January. The Scottish Rugby Union had taken their time mulling over the matter to avoid a rash response. They recognised that Rugby was a relatively new sport in France and that the crowds there had not been fortunate enough to grow with the game from its inception and therefore lacked an adequate education in its etiquette. Whist they felt that this to some extent extenuated the antics in Paris the incident itself was so serious that it was prejudicial to the best interests of the game. It was noted in particular that those who stormed the pitch were by no means restricted to those who had been in the cheap seats! The Scots were of the opinion that the French crowds needed to be taught a lesson in the traditions of the game. Foremost of these was the inviolate nature of the referee, whilst also noting that a game that could only be played under police protection was not worth playing. The Scots accepted that there were many in France who deplored the incident, not least the French committee members and players who did their best to protect Baxter and the Scottish players and presumably the half of the crowd that did not storm the pitch. Even so the decision had been made and the 1914 Scotland v France match was cancelled. The two sides would not meet again until after the first world war.


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© D A Hunter, 2011
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