Mercurial French centre Guy Boniface remembered on 50th anniversary

French Rugby Union player Guy Boniface, 1937-1968. Universal/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

"When Guy died, something died in rugby -- friendship, gaiety and generosity flavoured with insouciance". So wrote veteran French scribe Henri Garcia of the death of Guy Boniface on New Year's Day 1968, 17 hours after the car in which he was a passenger struck a tree at Hagetmau, 20 miles from Mont de Marsan, the town where he lived and played his rugby.

Garcia was of a generation of French writers which was never knowingly under-lyrical. But he captured both the immediate sense of shock -- Boniface was only 30 and was not only still playing, but was on his way back from a match, a friendly at Orthau, close enough for Mont de Marsan's officials to allow players to make their own way rather than using the team bus -- and the wider resonance of his death.

His name is inevitably remembered in conjunction with elder brother Andre, also a centre. And it is no fluke at all that 'Freres Boniface' appears next to 'French Flair' in Daniel Herrero's joyously idiosyncratic Dictionnaire Amoureux du Rugby. In the debate over playing styles which runs through the history of the French game, les Boni epitomised 'rugby-champagne'.

And, as Herrero wrote, "When Guy died, the pair became mythical, emblems of lost talent and rugby martyrdom". What Denis Lalanne, another of the French game's lyricists, would chronicle in book form as 'L'Age des Boni' had lasted more than a decade. The teenage Andre Boniface played for Mont de Marsan in the 1953 French final and won his first caps the following year, creating two tries for Maurice Prat and leading one spectator to redefine a well-known French advertising slogan as 'Du bon, du beau, du Boni' in his debut against Ireland, then playing in the first France team to beat the All Blacks.

Guy joined him as a regular in the Mont de Marsan team in 1957. Stade Montois, as they are officially known, were already a serious force in the French game, narrowly beaten finalists in 1949 and 1953. They had other players of serious consequence like hooker Pierre Pascalin, their first French cap in 1950, 27-times capped scrum-half Pierre Lacroix and wing Christian Darrouy, who scored 23 tries in 40 matches for France.

But they reached fresh peaks once the Boniface brothers were established as their centre pairing, reaching the last eight of the championship playoffs every year but one between 1959 and 1966 and winning three consecutive Du Manoir trophies -- French rugby's cup competition, between 1961 and 1963.

They reached a third championship final in 1959, but Guy's try was insufficient to avert defeat by Racing Club, and finally made the breakthrough in 1963. It was one of those provincial derbies occasionally thrown up by the championship. Mont de Marsan faced Dax, little more than 20 miles away in the Landes department, enabling a pre-match display of Landais costumes and traditions -- including stilt-walkers in the colours of both clubs, rather more memorable than a dour, attritional contest won 9-6 by Mont de Marsan, Andre lifting the trophy after contributing a penalty and a drop.

Pictures of thousands of happy revellers in the streets of Mont de Marsan show how little, on this occasion, the quality of the match mattered. But they had already shown their ability to thrill in a 19-3 semi-final demolition of Beziers described by Richard Escot and Jacques Riviere as a 'gala match with the play of our dreams, a perfect ballet with lessons for the whole of French rugby'.

That was much more in keeping with the style for which Mont de Marsan became famed during the Boniface years, built around their fraternal centre pairing of whom Herrero recalled that 'in the time it took to say their names, they could make three breaks and produce one of their famed cross-passes'.

Their gift for deception and invention was neatly summed up, in an intriguing echo of comments about much earlier rugby-playing brothers -- late Victorian Welsh half-backs Evan and David James -- by Lalanne's view that 'the better of the two is the one who has not got the ball'.

But it was Guy in particular who was seen as the genius. Olivier Villepreux recalled him as 'an inspired artist'. Midi Olympique's writers credited him with seeing rugby as 'a demanding aesthetic in which style and gesture matter more than the result.' Darrouy, the beneficiary of much of his invention, said that he "had the side-step in his blood."

His progress slightly delayed by military service in Algeria, which in the 1950s was detaching itself from France in a savage war of independence, he made his debut for France at Cardiff on 26th March 1960. That his partner was not Andre, in the middle of a three-year exile from the team, but Jacky Bouquet of Vienne, was a hint at the extraordinary pattern of his career.

France would field 26 Five Nations teams in the six years -- to the day -- on which Guy's international career would end, on the same ground. Only two of them, against Scotland in 1962 and Ireland in 1964, would include neither Boniface brother. Yet they were paired in only 10 of the 24.

This was not total madness. Wales were beaten 16-8 on the day of Guy's debut and France went on to share the 1961 title with England, then take the following year's championship outright. Paired with Bouquet, Guy won five of his first six Five Nations matches and drew the other.

Nor, perhaps did it help, that France were defeated on the first two occasions when they were paired, but with the extenuating circumstance that this was on their first tour of New Zealand, pretty much unbeatable for most of the 1960s, in 1961.

Midi Olympique reckoned that this had more to do with Andre, never slow to criticise officialdom. "It was as if he were chosen by fate to crystallise the conflicts of French rugby, beloved by the press and public, but distrusted by the selectors." While he won 48 caps, they were spread over 13 years in which France played 90 times.

Critics tended to point out that they were 'not always great', drawing from Herrero - whose brother Andre won 22 caps as a back-rower in the mid-1960s -- the rejoinder that 'poets are not always on top of their game. Instead they show us what beauty can be'.

Paired at last for the 1963 season they, and their colleagues from the Landes, enjoyed a remarkable year. Dax and Montois were not only the national finalists, but scored all 40 of France's Five Nations points -- Guy and Darrouy scoring three tries apiece while Andre and Pierre Albaladejo shared the kicking duties.

And their finest display came, after a six-match hiatus, when they were reunited for the final match of the 1965 season. Wales, already Triple Crown winners, came to Paris seeking a Grand Slam and were swept away by the definitive exhibition of rugby-champagne. Andre played one of the matches of his life and Guy scored two of the six tries that took France into a scarcely credible 22-0 lead just after half-time, before Wales fought back to cut the final margin to 22-13.

Guy evidently enjoyed playing against Wales, scoring four of his seven Five Nations tries against them. So it was ironic that a single error -- not of his making -- should have ended his international career a year later.

France led 8-6 in Cardiff and were minutes away from clinching the title after a season in which he and Andre had played all four matches when Jean Gachassin -- the diminutive outside-half often regarded as an auxiliary member of their brotherhood -- floated out a pass which, if it had arrived where intended, would have created a two-man overlap and a certain try for Darrouy.

Instead, drifting in the wind, it was intercepted by Wales wing Stuart Watkins, who went 75 metres for a match-winning score. In yet another shift in France's style war, the selectors blamed the Boniface brothers and Gachassin.

Andre had already contemplated making his 13th international season his last, with the trip to play Italy in Naples his farewell. That was denied him as the trio were dropped, although they got to go to Naples anyway as guests of L'Equipe, paid for by a public subscription made up entirely of one franc donations.

Guy, always loyal to his brother -- he declined a place on the 1964 tour of South Africa in protest at a suspension imposed on Andre for being sent off in a match against Romanian club Grivita Rosie -- followed him into international retirement after 37 caps. But both continued to play for Mont de Marsan.

And Guy, described by Jo Maso as 'the friend everybody would like to have', and of whom Antoine Blondin would write that 'even had he never touched a rugby ball, he would still have touched the lives of others like a rising sun', continued to live life to the full.

The brothers and Lucien Mias were conspicuous among the players who frequented the Petit Auberge restaurant in Paris along with a circle of rugby enthusiasts such as Blondin, tennis official Philippe Chatrier, commentator Roger Couderc and volcanologist Haroun Tazieff. Guy's appetite for Paris remained undimmed -- in November 1967 he partied hard after watching France play the All Blacks, but still got himself back home in time, and fit enough, to play the following day for Mont de Marsan against Montferrand and win a tight match with a solo 'assassin's try', making space where none had seemed to exist.

The circumstances of his death showed the extent to which this cosmopolitan, internationally known figure remained rooted in his small town origins. He was taken to the hospital at Saint Sever, midway between Hagetmau and Mont de Marsan. The surgeon who fought unavailingly to save his life had more than 20 years before directed his father's rehabilitation on his return from years as a prisoner-of-war in Germany.

The attendance at his funeral was estimated at between three and five thousand. Among them was French wing Jean-Michel Capendeguy, who had been selected to play against Scotland in the opening Five Nations match on the 13th. Driving back to his home at St Jean de Luz, he crashed and died, compounding French rugby's sense of devastation and disbelief.

That the doubly bereaved squad went on to clinch France's first Grand Slam, an achievement which had tantalised them in the 1960s much as winning the title had done in the 1950s, showed considerable mental fortitude, even if a team pattern built around the kicking from half-back of Guy and Lilian Camberabero from La Voulte, a much more conservative fraternal pairing, was a long way from rugby-champagne.

That was in keeping with a slightly equivocal official response to his death. In marked contrast to the rapid commemoration -- a trophy and a stadium -- accorded to Yves du Manoir, killed in a flying accident 40 years almost to the day earlier, it was more than 30 years before Mont de Marsan's ground was renamed as the Stade Guy Boniface.

Andre quit playing, but returned in 1970 to the Mont de Marsan team when outside-half Pierre Castaignede, father of Thomas, was injured, a comeback he recalled dryly as 'one Sunday which lasted for two years'. And he continued to uphold the values of rugby-champagne as club coach and to this day as a media contributor and polemicist.

It has been a distinctly uphill battle -- one shudders to think what Guy would have made of France, and in particularly some gruesomely poor contests with Wales, in recent years. The champagne has gone decidedly flat.

But the extent to which his memory lives on was shown when hooligans destroyed his statue outside the Stade Guy Boniface. A subscription headed by Jean Gachassin rapidly raised the costs of a replacement. Unless and until France gives up entirely on the style which made it distinctive -- and the last few years have been a lousy advertisement for pragmatism -- he will remain a significant figure in the collective psyche of the French game.