It has been 30 years since a day that belongs to the anthology of rugby, particularly remembered in France, but is also among the fundamental elements of the culture that shaped the sport during its epic evolution. On May 26, 1990, Racing Club de France, one of the oldest athletic clubs in Europe, with its rugby section leading the way, faced Sportive Union Agen at the legendary Parc des Princes in the City of Light.
The two clubs represented two different parts of the history of French rugby. On the one hand, Racing, the team from the capital, the first champion in the history of French rugby in 1892, represented the origins of an urban and middle-class sport that developed in a way similar to the British one, through college students who later founded their own clubs. On the other hand, Agen, as a small town in southwestern France, a region that lives and breathes rugby, represented the fervor of the provinces for the sport, coming from a place where every village is represented first by its rugby team and then by anything else. However, the identity of the teams was the minimum basis for the historicity of that night at the Parisian stadium.
History, the year 1987, the pink bowtie, and the lost final.
The Racing team of that era did not resemble any other team that has appeared at the top level of rugby worldwide. The fact that the sport was in the last years of amateurism made it significantly different from all other sports, giving it unique characteristics that somehow persist to this day. Thus, that Racing team, which played at the highest level in one of the rugby giants nations, did not settle for the spectacle it offered on the field. From the mid-1980s, a group of players who were great athletes but also amazing performers had created the so-called showbiz, a “gang” that brought a paradoxical and incredibly tasteful madness onto the playing field.
That Racing team had re-emerged into the spotlight after several decades, as after winning the championship for the last (4th) time in 1959, they managed to reach a French championship final again in 1987, against Toulon. That year, Racing put on one dramatic performance after another in the final phase of the championship. Initially, in the quarterfinal against Brive, players appeared wearing blazers and ties as they walked onto the field, while a week later, in the semifinal against Bordeaux, Racing’s players appeared wearing pink shorts under their shorts. Eventually, it was decided that the pink bow tie would be established as the team’s signature, which several players (mainly backs) wore in the final at Parc des Princes, against Toulon. Images of French President François Mitterand greeting the rugby players with pink bow ties are a monument in the great archive of rugby history.
Racing’s showbiz team lost the 1987 final, although they were leading at halftime. Many argue that the abundant consumption of champagne in the Paris team’s locker room during halftime may have played a decisive role in the outcome of that match.
Preparing for an epic battle
In 1987, the Racing team was celebrating early the fact that they had made it to the finals. This achievement was enough to quench the thirst (along with champagne) of the players who brought the historic club back to a point where it could compete for the highest domestic distinction. After all, playing in or even attending the French rugby championship finals, whether as a fan or a neutral spectator, is a very special experience. The stadium that hosts these games (now the Stade de France) has an incredible festive atmosphere. Thousands of people flock together, carrying their own piece of love for rugby – their amateur club’s jersey, a musical instrument, a local costume – creating a sports and social festival. It is very easy to be carried away by all this atmosphere and not be able to focus on the game. Therefore, the experience of a recent lost final is quite significant in order to achieve success!
Unlike in 1987, the players of Racing did not celebrate all week before the final. One of the reasons was that several of them had participated in a marathon held in Paris a week earlier, not having much energy to drink all week. However, according to the story of the unstoppable lock duo of that team, Michel Tachdjian and Patrick Serrière, this did not prevent them from doing other crazy things a few days before the final.
One week before the big match, after their Saturday night out, early on Sunday morning, 6 Racing players went to Parc des Princes, where they illegally entered the stadium and had a symbolic presentation of the big trophy, the so-called “Shield of Brennus”. For those who believe in omens, they would do well to continue believing, because the madness that those players carried was capable of making them an exception to every rule.
The Journey to the Final
In a championship that had started with 80 teams, as it was played with different group phases until the final knockout phase, Agen was a team with exceptional talent, many international players and was considered by many as the big favorite in 1990. For Racing, it was an achievement, not unbelievable, but certainly an achievement, that they had reached the final again.
To reach there, the two teams had eliminated with varying degrees of difficulty the other giants of French rugby. In the round of 16, Racing faced Castres, winning both matches, with a big margin in Paris, while Agen had a triumphant walk against FC Auch, which was much smaller in size, and the result was logical. In the quarterfinals, Racing needed extra time to break the resistance of Grenoble, while Agen won 0-6 against Toulon. Finally, in the semifinals, Racing won the classic battle of France against Stade Toulousain, while Agen eliminated AS Montferrand to secure their tickets for the rendezvous at Parc des Princes.
The Tense Hours Before the Final
The big day finally arrived, Saturday, May 26th, 1990. Racing’s mission began with a bus ride from its training center located in Rambouillet, a location about 45 kilometers east of Paris, to reach the Stade des Princes. However, from the moment the bus passed the city border at Porte St Cloud, it was almost impossible to continue its journey through the crowd that had flooded the streets along its route in an incredible frenzy. It is reported that the police had to resort to violence to be able to clear space for the bus, resulting in it arriving at the venue of the big match with a significant delay, about half an hour before the start.
This time was not enough for any warm-up. Thus, Racing’s players only went onto the pitch for a commemorative photo and prepared themselves as best as they could to come out onto the field when they would meet François Mitterand again with his pink bow tie. It was a time when warm-up perhaps played a smaller role in athletic performance compared to psychological preparation, and as far as this aspect is concerned, the presence and behavior of the crowd accompanying the mission’s bus may have given the team the maximum it could to boost their morale.
The Epic of the Final
As one can understand, that Final had a huge impact, due to the teams that played in it, due to the peak of amateur rugby in a commercialized era, due to the massification of every manifestation of sympathy and fanaticism in a way that spread much more easily and much further than the place of the events. The Racing players this time had nothing to show off their pink bow ties, those had become inseparable from their presence on the field, so the meeting with François Mitterand contained to a lesser degree the element of surprise.
However, what did not change, compared to 1987, was the consumption of champagne during halftime. The party may not have happened in the same way and there may have been anticipation for the big win, but champagne could not be absent from the terrain of Parc des Princes, leaving in history images that one would hardly see again at a top-level sporting event.
The game was a classic French final, which, unlike the French Flair that was flourishing in the national team at the time, is almost always a battle of strength in small spaces, with duels of forwards. The forwards of Racing (even without a tie) made an appearance befitting the historicity of the day and gave the opportunity for the showbiz of the backs (who wore ties) to win the match and set the stage for an unparalleled party that would take many years to happen again.
The end of the match didn’t have champagne, but beer, abundant beer as befits rugby, in wet locker rooms, with players smoking their cigars in the showers and fans invading to grab whatever they could as a precious souvenir from that historic day and victory.