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Paul Kimmage meets Laurent Benezech: 'The whole object of speaking out was to prevent someone dropping dead on a rugby pitch'

Laurent Benezech: ‘I don’t know if I could have done it in Ireland. Rugby is such a big thing in Ireland’
Laurent Benezech: ‘I don’t know if I could have done it in Ireland. Rugby is such a big thing in Ireland’
Laurent Benezech: ‘I don’t know if I could have done it in Ireland. Rugby is such a big thing in Ireland’

Paul Kiimmage

"That there is called the Gruuthuse Museum."

"They all have funny names, don't they?"

"Yes, Flemish. In here it says, 'The Belgians twice sheltered fugitive English Kings from being murdered, 1471 and 1651."

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"I used to hate history, didn't you? It's all just a load of stuff that's already happened."

Martin McDonagh,

'In Bruges'

 

Laurent Benezech prefers looking forward to looking back and has never had much time for stuff that's already happened so there's no point in asking what brought him to Bruges last weekend, or what happened there. So thank God for Dani, his wife.

It was her birthday. They booked a nice hotel, spent a couple of days seeing the sights and then set out for Knokke-Heist, Belgium's most affluent seaside resort. It was a bitterly cold Monday morning, the sea was slate grey and the clouds threatened rain. The tide was out and the dunes were deserted and the only colour in the place was the profusion of Maseratis and Ferraris.

They set off down the beach for a stroll and it was no surprise when the cold began to bite that Laurent stopped and offered his scarf. 'That's so typical,' she thought. Then he did something else that was typical.

He handed her his coat, pulled off his jumper and unbuckled the belt on his trousers.

"No Laurent!"

He unbuttoned his shirt, gave her his vest and removed his shoes and socks.

"No Laurent!"

He walked into the sea wearing a pair of black underpants, waded out 50 metres until the water had reached his waist and he dipped under to soak his chest.

"No Laurent!"

He stood for a moment in the icy breeze before coming out and had almost reached the water's edge when he turned and went back in again, diving this time so that his head was fully immersed.

"You idiot!"

His lips were blue and his limbs were shaking violently. He tried to dry himself with the vest but she had to help him to dress and find refuge in a nearby café where they ordered hot chocolate. "I was just testing myself," he smiled, but that wasn't what she needed explained.

"It was the same when he wrote the book," she says. "We sat down and he explained what he was doing and why he was doing it, but he has never explained that inner compulsion.

"Why was it him? Why did he feel the need to do it? Why does he always feel that need, whatever the subject matter?"

Benezech has always been different. The eldest of two born to his parents Francois and Yvette, he grew up in Pamiers in the Midi Pyrenees where his mother was a teacher and his father worked in the postal service. Laurent wanted more. "The easy thing would have been to stay in Pamiers," he says, "but I was curious. I wanted to discover the world."

Athletic and gifted at rugby, he played schoolboy for France, starred for Toulouse and made his Five Nations debut against England in March 1994. 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 was a founder member of the first players' union when the game went professional.

He was now the vice-captain of France and a pillar of the team that defeated the All Blacks again that November in Toulouse. But his fight for players' rights was not well received in the corridors of power and he would earn just 15 caps.

In the summer of '96 he signed a two-year deal with Harlequins and it was in London that he met Dani Allan, a student lawyer, for the first time. "The Laurent you see now is the Laurent I met when we were in our 20s," she says. "He was never, ever going to be the guy that ran the bar in the rugby town, or the guy that managed the local team. Rugby was a chapter in his life, but it did not define his life."

Betsie, the first of their three children, was born in 1999. He played his last game of rugby a year later for Narbonne and began a new life in Paris as a marketing and communications consultant. Rugby mattered to him. He was an analyst for L'équipe, wrote two books - Anatomie d'une Partie de Rugby and Secrets du Stress but the increasing violence of the game, and the demands being made of the players, was troubling him.

In April 2013, the director of the French anti-doping agency, Francoise Lasne, informed a Senate hearing on doping that there were more positive tests coming from rugby than any other sport. The backlash from the rugby community was extraordinary. The French Rugby Federation (FFR) and Professional League (LNR) immediately issued statements challenging Lasne's views and there were howls from coaches and players.

Benezech followed the reaction with a growing sense of despair. There was no debate. The sport was in denial, but 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.

He called Laurent Telo, a journalist friend at Le Monde, and expressed his concern about the abuse of growth hormone and corticoids in the sport. Their interview was published on Saturday, April 6 and two months later, Dani was home alone when a bailiff arrived at their door: "Je suis huissier de justice et je cherche Monsieur Laurent Benezech."

She signed for the papers and hurried back to the kitchen: Provale, the French professional players union, and 134 of its members, were pursuing Laurent for defamation and were demanding €2,000 each in costs. She reached for her phone and tried to call him but it went straight to voice message. She sat down and did the sums and felt the colour drain from her face.

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

* * * * *

A Wednesday evening west of Paris. Laurent Benezech is sitting in the kitchen of his home with a copy of his book - Rugby, Ou Sont Tes Valeurs? - that has just travelled over from Ireland.

"You signed that for me the last time I was here."

"Yes," he replies.

"Do you remember what you said?"

He opens the cover and smiles: "Paul, I don't know what this book will bring to the rugby world but at least it brought us together which is already something!"

"So that's the question," I say. "What did the book bring to the rugby world?"

"From the beginning I knew it had to be a strategy of little stones," he says. "Put enough of them together and you can build a house. As we've seen in cycling, the only people who can bring big stones for the house are the police or a tribunal that would oblige people to react. But it was important for someone to start the process. I knew by speaking about it I wasn't going to change anything directly but I created a momentum, because what people denied in 2013 is obvious today."

"What's the compulsion?" I ask.

"It wasn't a compulsion," he says.

"You had the option to walk on the beach last week but you walked into the sea: you had the option to keep all of your rugby friends but you lost them by talking about doping?"

"It was several things," he says.

I knew if I didn't do it, nobody else was going to do it - at least in the short term. And there was a risk of something dramatic happening and feeling guilty about it, and I have a perfect example of that: a young player at Racing - a prop like me at my old club - died from a heart attack at the age of 19."

"When was that?"

"A year later . . . I'll find you the date (May 28, 2014) but at least I tried. I thought I could be useful as an ex-international."

"You're not the only ex-international," I counter. "But you're the only one to take a stand?"

"Maybe it was easier for me," he says. "Rugby was never going to be the main part of my life, or the only part of my life. I've seen plenty of players from my generation working inside the rugby world and really stuck in their past - that was never what I wanted. Rugby, for me, was a way to enjoy my childhood, my life, but there's no way my life was going to be stuck in it.

"I escaped from the South of France: if I was living in Toulouse or Biarritz it would have been more difficult for me and I don't know if I could have done it in Ireland. Rugby is such a big thing in Ireland. I've been following what's happening there at the moment and it's difficult to step back and have an objective view."

"The Grobler story?" I suggest.

"Yeah, that's something that really pisses me off - it's always the fault of the foreigner," he says. "We had it in France when Bernard Lapasset (the former president of the FFR) told the Senate Commission that if there was a problem with drugs in rugby it was because of the Fijians. It's always the same story - the sacrificial lamb: you take it, you kill it and blame all the sins of the community on it. And you are washed from your own sin! And that's exactly what I see with the Grobler story in Ireland."

"What about the sense of vindication?" I ask. "Vindication?"

"Yeah, everything you said is proving to be true?"

"The big victory for me was what one of the judges said in his summary (at the defamation trial with Provale) - that even an authorised treatment for a rugby player can damage their health. And that's really important because one day a lawyer will take this part of my judgement and use it to attack a club or (governing body) for the damage they've caused to a player. So that was an important victory for me and one I never expected."

But Dani isn't sure.

"The whole object of speaking out - and I know this because he sat me down and explained it the day before he met the journalist - was to prevent someone dropping dead on a rugby pitch," she says. "And so when you can say that everything he said has proven to be true, I say, 'No, it's exactly what he wanted to avoid.'

"He wanted everyone to have a debate three years ago about the effects these programmes the clubs were putting on young players, and the whole point was to avoid proof of what he was saying. He knew it was happening, he just wanted them to have a debate about whether it was safe and the right thing to do.

"How can there be vindication when you see a kid the same age as your son taking a hit on a rugby pitch and we have no idea the effect that will have on his life? His body has been created, apparently, to take those hits and they will feed him with all sorts of things to reduce the pain so that he can go out and take those hits again. So as a mum, sitting here, you have to have a sense of wanting to protect. No one wants to stop the spectacle, we just want to make it a safe one."

* * * * *

He was 22 when he played against Ireland for the first time - a university game in Le Havre to celebrate the centenary of the club in 1988. A year later, he played the return fixture on a Friday night in Cork, and then travelled up to Lansdowne Road to watch Serge Blanco beat Ireland. "The Five Nations weekends were always good fun," he says. "I got a chance to see your country and enjoy a pint there."

Rugby back then was his 'Madeleine de Proust' - a game he played with friends and an experience he would treasure for the rest of his life. But he lost those friends when he spoke out about doping, and he won't be in the Stade de France next weekend when France play Ireland.

"If I go to a rugby stadium now, or meet people in the rugby world, I'm obliged to be defensive because I know I'm not that welcome," he says. "I cannot be one hundred per cent relaxed when I'm in a rugby environment but I'll watch the game on TV and try to enjoy the show if the two teams play well."

"Because of the book," I suggest. "That was the impact?"

"It was like being in a sand storm," he says. "You find sand grains everywhere in your life - even in parts you are not supposed to find them. You are caught in the middle of a storm and there is sand everywhere. It's something you can't believe unless you've experienced it."

"I think he still suffers today," Dani says. "He's a guy that tells the awkward truth and you know what society is like? We don't really deal with that very well. The vast majority of his friends took a step back and are still reticent today about putting him forward (for anything) and that's a really horrible thing to say given they had known each other for such a long time."

"It was more than I expected," Benezech shrugs. "I tried to assess the risk but I lost some clients and opportunities because they didn't want to be (associated) with something (they perceived) as negative.

"Isn't that incredible?" I say. "It should be the exact opposite."

But Benezech, being Benezech, cuts straight to the bottom line: "No, it's not incredible at all," he says.

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