Sunday 16 June 2019

Paul Kimmage: Rugby has to face up to its growing pains

Laurent Benezech
Laurent Benezech
Laurent Benezech
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

The first game of the year, against Castres, left a lasting impression on our physical trainer, Nicolas Foulquier.

In essence we got bullied by a bigger forward pack, who wore us down up front. Individually, each player seemed to have the advantage of a few kilograms of muscle and we felt it every time we were in contact. Given that rugby is a contact sport, this is a problem. There are two solutions - either you can buy bigger players, or you can enlarge the existing ones.

(John Daniell, 'Confessions of a Rugby Mercenary')

1

Dani Allan was alone that morning when the bell sounded at the gate. It was a beautiful sunny Friday in June 2013; Laurent was at work, the kids were at school and as she descended to the foot of the garden and pulled back the gate she expected the postman or one of the neighbours. A woman - petite, casually dressed, late-30s - had stepped from a car and was holding a wedge of papers.

"Bonjours Madame," she announced.

Why was the engine still running?

"Je suis huissier de justice et je cherche Monsieur Laurent Benezech."

The woman was a bailiff!

"Est ce qu'il habite ici?"

She had come to serve a writ!

"Est ce qu'il est la?

What should she do?

"Vous etes sa femme?"

What should she say?

"Je vous demande de bien vouloir signe ce document en fin que je puisse vous remettre cette assignation."

She wanted her to sign for it!

"S'il vous plait."

She signed.

She took the papers, closed the gate and hurried back to the kitchen. She opened the bundle and read the summons from the court: Provale, the French professional rugby players union, and 134 of its members were pursuing her husband for defamation.

Some were French internationals: Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Brice Mach, Vincent Debaty, Renaud Boyoud, Julien Pierre, Thibaut Privat, Julien Bonnaire, Remy Martin, Ibrahim Diarra, Elvis Vermeulen, Julien Thomas, Remi Tales, Wesley Fofana, Romain Cabannes, Anthony Floch, Florent Denos, Brice Dulin.

Some were foreigners: the Georgian Davit Zirakashvili; the Argentinians Agustin Creevy and Santiago Fernandez; the Samoan Sanele Vavae Tuilagi; the New Zealander Dwayne Haare; the Englishmen Jamie Noon and Joe El-Abd.

The list of claimants seemed endless and was followed by a summary of what they were looking for - €2,000 in costs - each! She reached for the phone and tried to call her husband but it went straight to his voicemail. She sat down and did the sums and felt the colour drain from her face. Forty minutes passed before he called her back; one thought peppered her head:

'We're going to lose the house over this.'

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Laurent Benezech

2

The first time Keith Wood became aware of Laurent Benezech was watching 'the try from the end of the world'. The month was July 1994 and a week after hammering the All Blacks in Christchurch, France travelled to Eden Park with a chance to win the series.

New Zealand are four points clear with minutes to play and have won a lineout just inside their own half, when the man they called 'Monsieur Propre' (for his ability to secure clean ball tapped from the jumper) enters the frame. We see Benezech twice in the jaw-dropping move that decides the game; at the front of the lineout and protecting Philippe Saint-Andre as France scythe through the All Blacks defence with a try for the ages.

Two years later, Benezech and Wood were team-mates (and briefly flat-mates) at Harlequins. "He was not the personification of a French prop," Wood says. "He was bald and very thin and not the aggressive scrummager we had hoped for, but we got on well.

"I think it's hard in some respects in rugby when people are quiet and 'Benee' was very quiet. He was also a deep thinker. He spoke English well but was quite slow and very deliberate in everything he had to say."

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Laurent Benezech

The eldest of two born to his parents, Francois and Yvette, Benezech was raised in the city of Pamiers in the Midi Pyrenees. His father worked for the postal service; his mother taught history and geography at the local secondary school but for as long as he can remember, Laurent wanted more.

"The easy thing would have been to stay in Pamiers and be the best player in the club and buy a café," he says, "but I was curious. I wanted to discover the world."

In 1985, he took a degree in economics at L'Universite de Toulouse and signed for Stade Toulousain. He had played number eight as a schoolboy for France and switched to lock at Toulouse but knew, almost immediately, that he wasn't going to make it.

"I was a bit short for lock," he says. "There were three guys playing lock on the first team and whenever we had a bad result it was always the shortest one who was dropped. My ambition was to go to the top and it was obvious I was never going to play for France as a lock so I had to find another position, and loosehead prop was the perfect move."

Four years later, after completing his degree, he decided to study business and marketing. He moved to Paris, signed for Racing Club de France took and won his first Championship at the age of 24 in 1990. Four years passed. He had found a good job in Paris and was doing well for Racing but was still without a cap.

"The problem was that I was perceived as an ex-lock so they had doubts about me, particularly as I was playing at Racing and not (down south) in the heartland of French rugby."

In March 1994, after three games of the Five Nations, he was called into the squad to face England at Parc des Princes. It was the most daunting experience of his life.

"There was a training camp in the south of France a week before the game and I had to spend an hour-and-a-half doing scrums and knew that if I went backwards by even a centimetre, I was dead. It was the same thing in the game: I tore my ankle after 20 minutes and thought 'If I leave the pitch now, it's the last time I'll wear this jersey.'"

Three months later, he had won five caps and beaten the All Blacks twice.

In 1995 he travelled to South Africa for the World Cup and created the first players union when the game went professional. Intelligent, trenchant and different, he was now the vice-captain of France and a pillar of the team (led by Saint-Andre) that defeated the All Blacks that November in Toulouse. But his fight for players' rights had not gone down well in the corridors of power and he would earn just one more cap.

Fatigued by the politicking, he left for London in the summer of '96 and signed a two-year deal with Harlequins. He enjoyed the city, and the club, and the front-row shifts with Wood and Jason Leonard but decided to return to France after a year.

In July of '98, he was living in Toulouse and playing for Narbonne when the Festina doping controversy shelled the Tour de France. Every day, some new and fascinating detail would emerge about the riders and the drugs - cortisone, testosterone, growth hormone and EPO - being used to fuel their performance and it started him thinking about rugby.

The abuse of amphetamines had been rife in the sport since the 1960s. In the late '80s he had known a clubmate who had tested positive (for a corticosteroid) during the Five Nations and had it swept under the carpet. In 1994, during the tour to New Zealand, a team-mate had told him about a doctor in Bordeaux who practiced the dubious theory of 'hormonal rebalancing'.

In 1995, Patrick Soula had tested positive for dextropropoxyphene after the final of the French Championship but had escaped a sanction because it was a treatment for back pain. A year before, 11 of the South African players who had battered France 52-10 at Parc des Princes were being treated with cortisone or Ventoline for asthma.

Drugs had been part of rugby from the first day he had played the game . . . he just hadn't seen it. "One of the interesting things about your brain is that you will refuse to see something obvious - even if it's in front of you - if you decide to," he says. "I remember being asked once (by some body builders during the Festina scandal) how we were 'organised medically' at Narbonne and saying 'We've got two doctors and three physios.'

"I created a world where I didn't have to think about it, because once you think about it, it's the end of the dream, or the beginning of the nightmare. I was never confronted with it and was able to protect myself by not thinking about it. I never had to answer the question, I could move around it."

He kept moving.

He had met Dani in London during his year at Harlequins and their first child, Betsie, was born in 1999. A year later, he retired at Narbonne and began a new life in Paris as a marketing and communications consultant. For five years, his only contact with the sport was reading the newspapers and watching TV. He had made a deliberate decision to cast himself adrift.

"I've always been more interested in what's ahead of me than what's behind me," he explains, "and the last thing I wanted was to be an ex-player in a suit. It hurt to do it as violently as I did it but it made me a new person and that really helped later when I became a rugby consultant."

Later was 2005 and an analyst's role at L'Equipe. Two years later, in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup, his first book - Anatomie d'une Partie de Rugby - a stylish and original insight on the mysteries of the game. In 2012, he published Secrets du Stress, a two-part compendium on the mechanics and management of stress.

There wasn't much of it in his own life. His business was flying; his children were thriving; home was a beautiful country pile in the Vexin national park on the outskirts of Paris. But a year later, after a game at Stade de France, everything would change.

The date was Saturday, March 2, 2013.

3

A client has invited him to a corporate box: Stade Francais are playing Clermont at home in the 20th round of the Top 14. The game brims with intensity and commitment. Clermont, perhaps the best team in Europe, are pulverising Stade but the home fans can have no complaints. The spectacle is brilliant.

There's a reception downstairs afterwards with the players. He follows his host to the drinks and petit fours but can't fathom what he sees when the gladiators arrive. There is something about their size.

'Where's the fat?'

And the texture and tone of their skin jolts with him. He's a big man, and has played with big men, but these guys are from a different planet.

C'est pas normal.

Things get worse on the journey home. The little voice in his head is torturing him . . .

"C'est pas normal."

"I hear you."

"C'est pas normal."

"Okay, but what are you going to do about it?"

"I'm getting out."

"That's brave."

"I'm not watching rugby again."

"Wonderful . . . but what will that change."

"I can't change it."

"You can denounce it."

"That won't change it."

"It's a start."

"Why me?"

"Why not?"

"I'm not ready yet."

"You've had 20 years."

"Not true."

"You're complicit."

"Not true."

"If you don't speak out you're complicit."

"I need to think about it."

Four weeks later, Francoise Lasne, a gifted scientist and the director of the French anti-doping laboratory at Chateny-Malabry, is called before a Senate hearing to discuss the fight against doping in sport. Her testimony makes headlines all over France: "If we take into account all of the substances prohibited by WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency), rugby is the sport that has given us the highest percentage positive tests."

The backlash is extraordinary. The French Rugby Federation (FFR) and Professional League (LNR) immediately issue statements challenging the expert's views. Guy Noves, the most decorated coach in France, and Fabien Galthie, the former French captain, are also not amused.

Galthie: "Rugby is a sport that demands conflicting physical qualities. It's a sport of effort that lasts 100 minutes. You have to be tough. It's not a race. It's a sport of speed, power, dexterity and communication; a sport where you have to remain clear during combat. I don't know any miracle product that would allow you to master all that."

Noves: "I have to laugh I mean . . . if rugby is the number one doping sport then we're really great in France because me, I don't know any player who has doped. Tell me, you the media, give me the name of a professional rugby player recently who has doped?"

Benezech read the reports and listened to the comments with a growing sense of despair. There was no debate. The response from the rugby family seemed to be, 'Leave us alone, we know what we're doing' when it was obvious to Benezech that they were sitting on a runaway train: the players were getting bigger; the hits were getting harder; the game was getting faster; no one was asking questions.

"The time was right to go public," he says, "so I bounced it off Dani because I knew there were consequences for my family. We talked about it. She could see the risk but it wasn't hard to convince her it was the right thing to do."

"Did you bounce it off anyone else?" I ask. "A former team-mate? Another player perhaps?"

"I'm not a politician," he says. "I wasn't going to have a poll to decide what I should or should not do. I had a deep conviction that I was right and it wasn't negotiable. The only question I had was what to do about it. The only thing that would have changed my mind was science, or someone who was able to explain to me how you can create a human being who weighs more than 120kgs with no body fat, only muscles."

Two days after Lasne's appearance at the Senate, he rang Laurent Telo, a journalist friend at Le Monde and suggested they meet for a chat. "I told him about my concerns about the abuse of growth hormone and corticoids," he says, "but was conscious not to use the word 'dopage' because I don't know what it means, and I didn't want to get caught in that trap, because that's the trap.

"As soon as you mention doping they (the governing body) say: 'We have no positives. There's no doping. It's as simple as that,' so the term I used instead was 'l'accompagnement medicalise' (medical assistance)."

"But surely taking growth hormone to play rugby is doping?" I counter. "You can argue that it's what they need to do to play the game but it's still doping."

"Yes, for you," he replies, "but not for him (the player) because he's not positive after a test. That's the problem. I cannot use a word that has several definitions and for me, taking growth hormone is using a performance enhancing medical aid, the same as the useless stuff like creatine and the useful stuff like EPO.

"It's more relevant for corticoids because, as you know, if you take them out of competition it's authorised but it's unauthorised in the 48 hours around a game. And taking corticoids is what? It's 'l'accompagnement medicalise de la performance' for sure but is it doping? I don't know.

"And I didn't want to get stuck in that argument because that's what they want and my only goal in all of this was the health of the players, and that has nothing to do with 'dopage' but it has a lot to do with taking drugs. Because when an athlete takes a sleeping pill, it's not supposed to be linked to performance but it is. But try calling that 'dopage.'

"What interests me is if the athlete takes a sleeping pill during a period when he is using corticoids because now, inside his body, he's got this potentially dangerous mix. That was my only goal. That's the message I wanted to send to the players.

"I wanted them to stop listening to these guys telling them they're great, and that if they take medication they'll be even better because one day these guys won't care. Somebody new will come along and the player will be left on his own and if he develops some disease linked to all of the medication he took, he'll have to deal with that alone. That's the sad part of it."

A week later, on Saturday April 6 2013, the interview - a 1500 word Q&A - was published by Le Monde. It had an attention grabbing headline ('Rugby is in the same position as cycling before the Festina affair') and criticised a coach who wasn't named: "When I hear a national coach announce that the time the ball is in play, which is presently averaging about 40 minutes, must increase to 50 minutes for the 2015 World Cup and that only the players who are able to maintain these rates will be able to play in the national team, then I can only see that as a call to doping."

But the tone overall was measured and he was sure it would spark a debate, but for three days nothing happened; not a word in L'Equipe; not a word in Liberation; not a squeak.

Then, on Tuesday, AFP ran a story that the players union, Provale, were considering taking an action against him for defamation. Suddenly, he was news.

4

Some dates from his diary.

April 17, 2013: Two weeks after the AFP story, he accepts an invitation from Provale to meet the players in Toulouse. He expects a debate. They expect an apology. He is bruised but stands his ground.

May 20, 2013: He is called before the Senate and reflects on his career. His testimony makes headlines again. Were the team given cortisone to prepare for the '95 World Cup? He's not sure.

June 27, 2013: He takes a call from Dani in Corsica confirming that Provale and the players have sued.

July 2, 2013: Another call from Dani. The bailiff has been out to the house again. Philippe Saint-Andre is suing him for defamation for an interview he gave to Midi Olympique.

July 20, 2013: He loses a consultancy contract with the department of the Ariege. They tell him they're not happy with what he's been saying about rugby.

August, 28 2013: The bailiff arrives again. He's at home this time. Alain Camborde, a strength and conditioning trainer from Pau, is suing him for defamation over his testimony to the Senate.

November 12, 2013: Camborde withdraws his case on the eve of the hearing in Pau. Benezech must bear the cost of the legal fees, flights and hotels

June 27, 2014: After ten months spent diligently preparing his case, he travels to Palais de Justice in Paris to face Provale. He has three witnesses: Michel Rieu, the former head of the French anti-doping agency; Damien Ressiot, the former doping correspondent with L'Equipe; and Jacques Servat, a former captain with the police special forces unit. It goes well captain.

September 26, 2014: He wins the case with Provale.

October 31, 2014: His book Rugby, Ou Sont tes Valeurs, a brilliant expose on doping, is published.

November 5, 2014: He returns to the Palais de Justice for the case with Saint-Andre. The French coach doesn't show but the hearing goes well. The judgement is reserved until December.

5

A Tuesday afternoon in November: five hours have passed since he began telling his story and I'm not sure if we have reached the end.

"What now?" I ask. "Is that it?"

"That's the thousand Euro question," he smiles. "The one thing I've discovered since the start of all this is that I'm not in control of everything. I thought I was in control of the interview and the consequences when I spoke to Le Monde but look what happened. I've written the book now. I can't walk away from it. What's next? I don't have a strategy but I don't want to be defined as a whistleblower."

"You don't?"

"No, because a whistleblower, for me, is someone who denounces a situation and does his job and what happens afterwards is not his problem.

"I wanted the rugby world to involve me to help find a solution and I feel frustrated that nothing has happened. To build a house, you need a lot of stones. I've played a part and carried a stone, but it's up to others now to play a part.

"The experience in cycling showed that the big stone was carried when the police got involved and I'm starting to think that's something that needs to happen in rugby. The situation needs police action to create disruption and to make people confront their responsibilities and obligation to change this."

"But if this is how it ends, surely you've done enough?" I suggest. "You tried, you fulfilled your duty to the sport. Surely being a whistleblower is enough?"

"Enough for who?" he asks.

"Enough for you, you've done as much as you could do."

"Yes."

"So what's wrong with that?"

"What's wrong is that nothing changes."

"And what if you'd known that? What if you'd known that nothing would change? "Would you still have given the interview to Le Monde?"

"Yes, of course, but I was trapped," he says. "I had to choose between pretending I had seen nothing and to deal with myself or denouncing what I had seen and deal with the shit. And I prefer to deal with the shit than deal with myself, because I spend a lot of time with myself."

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