An exclusive extract from my book The Bleus Brothers. Chapter 2 features Guilhem Guirado
It is midnight in Saint-Denis, and Guilhem Guirado the France captain is still doing the media rounds. He is muddied, bruised and exhausted after the opening game of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations Championship.
Nine o’clock kick-offs may be good news for the home supporters who can indulge in a leisurely dinner pre-match but for players it is the final knockings of a very long day.
As Friday night nudges into Saturday morning, Guilhem can finally grab a shower. After the endless rounds of media commitments, it is time to start the long process of unwinding. Many more hours will pass before he can finally get the kind of sleep a warrior deserves, although sleep may be in short supply after the extraordinary events that have unfolded on the field of play.
The dark streets of Saint-Denis are illuminated by neon hotel signs, and the dimly-lit bars are nearly empty as the last train takes supporters back to Gare du Nord and central Paris.
An uneasy quiet descends on the Stade de France, the moonlight reflecting in the icy puddles as the shutters on the food outlets come echoing to a close in the Parisian night with the final Espresso dispensed.
On a bitterly cold night, the warm red shirts of Wales created a comeback that would have defied Lazarus as they turned around a 0-16 deficit at half-time, to score three second-half tries and earn a 24-19 victory.
It was Wales’ biggest ever half-time turnaround in a Five or Six Nations match, and the haunted look and sheer desolation on the French faces at full time was painful to see.
Even with Jefferson Poirot in the front row it is difficult to fathom the mystery of how France let such a big lead slip. What might Poirot the detective have said? “There is nothing more amazing than the extraordinary sanity of the insane! Unless it is the extraordinary eccentricity of the sane!”
Selecting the hooker position for this French Hard Men XV was one of the decisions I struggled with the most.
Firstly, by definition, you don’t get a hooker who isn’t hard; when you are dangling in a scrum between two brutes with your arms trapped and head-to-head with the opposition, witty repartee is not going to help you very much.
Secondly, France has had such an embarras de richesses of ‘talloneurs’ – Paco, Dubroca, Szarzewski and Ibanez to name but a few.
I’m sure many will question my choice of Guilhem Guirado as hooker. The numéro deux shirt has been worn by so many wonderful hard men that I really was spoilt for choice. But hardness comes in many different forms and Guilhem Guirado had a mental and physical hardness that very few could match.
He virtually carried the national team at one of the most disappointing periods in its history, but as hooker and captain, Guilhem never let his personal standards or his level of performance drop for one second which is more than can be said for some of his colleagues in the blue jersey.
Guirado was like a one-man battering ram, running himself into the ground, not only doing all the donkey work expected of a hooker but also becoming a major try scorer.
In the 2018 autumn internationals, he scored in all three matches of the series against South Africa, Argentina and Fiji, and ended up as France’s top try scorer of the campaign with four.
In total he scored eight tries for his country, four of which came during the fourteen-day period of those 2018 autumn matches.
A Twitter debate perfectly summed up Guilhem’s situation. The question was asked: “Which player from another Six Nations team would you select for your own country?”
The overwhelming majority of people voted for Guirado. One user replied: “I would pick Guilhem Guirado just so that he doesn’t have to suffer through playing for France anymore!”
Guilhem was a warrior; he put his body on the line time and time again and he never flinched. At the end of every international, the television cameras would pan in on him in painful close-up as he stared wide eyed with despair. Sometimes you got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that he was the only one that cared.
When France lost to Ireland 13-15 at Stade de France in February 2018, Guirado made 31 tackles, a Six Nations record that he jointly holds with Luke Charteris of Wales.
His durability was incredible. For someone who was always the first to put his body on the line, he had very few absences with injury. When Guilhem went down in a match he would invariably bounce back up and if he stayed down then you knew it was something serious.
Arles-sur-Tech is a tiny village, set in a scenic forested valley in the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees, a place where Catalan and French are spoken.
It is less than one hour’s drive from the Spanish border, a journey that has a major relevance to one of its inhabitants, Guilhem Guirado.
In stature and appearance, he is exactly how you would imagine a French hooker to look. At 5ft 11ins and 15 stone 8lbs, he is as tough and solid as the local Pyrenean boulders on the field but has the calm, whispering qualities of the meandering Tech river off it.
He is a private man who puts his love of his family above all else. His grandparents were among the half a million Spanish citizens who fled the violence of the Spanish Civil War and crossed the Pyrenees with the sole aim of finding safety and refuge in France. The exodus was the biggest single influx of refugees ever known in France and was named “La Retirada”, the Spanish for retreat.
Guilhem’s parents were born in Granada. They were both five-year-olds when they arrived in France following that arduous journey with almost nothing to their name.
He says: “Until I was 15 all I knew was this village where my grandparents had arrived, my favourite memories are from here. I loved being that age; it is here everything really started for me and I found a passion for rugby.”
Guilhem is a man who knows where he is and more importantly where he has come from.
I first met him at the RBS Six Nations launch in 2016 after he had just been announced as the new France captain. He stood out as a man at peace with himself, taking everything in his stride in a calm and measured manner.
The lovely thing about Guilhem is that the moment he sees you he immediately shows you the latest photos of his children on his mobile phone. We have been through quite a few Six Nations launches and mixed zones together and he is always the same, win or lose.
“To know where you want to go, you need to know about where you came from, and the determination that went before” he says philosophically. When you delve into his family history you get a sense of where that inner strength has come from.
“What I like about rugby is the direct confrontation with an opponent, a physical contest and collisions, tackles.”
But when he gets home, he puts his bag down and rugby is done and dusted.
“The most important thing for me is my family and the people who are around me, whether they be my parents, grandparents, wife son or daughter.”
“It’s my stability, it’s something that allows me to put things into perspective and to be able to relax and see life in a different way. I’m not only thinking about rugby and that allows me to perform well on the field.”
The French region of Pyréneés-Orientales was ceded to France by Spain in the seventeenth century.
This beautiful place, nestled between the Pyrenees mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, is part of Northern Catalonia, also known as French Catalonia.
Perpignan accounts for over a quarter of the population of Northern Catalonia and is the heartbeat of Catalan culture and gastronomy. You will certainly find more red and yellow horizontally striped flags here than Tricolores.
While Catalonia is the richest part of Spain, French Catalonia is one of the poorest regions of France.
Guirado is a proud Catalan and to play for USAP was his boyhood dream.
To play for Union Sportive des Arlequins Perpignanais to give them their full title is a local aspiration akin to the boys on the Copacabana wanting to play for Brazil. For Guilhem it was no different.
“My first game for Perpignan was on 8th August 2006 in a local derby against Narbonne. I remember we played three matches in nine days. I arrived at the club aged 14. I never imagined playing for the first team. By just playing for the juniors, I felt I had reached my pinnacle.”
He broke his leg at the age of 15, an injury which should have been resolved in a few months but in this instance Guilhem was out of action for over a year.
“I watched my first Perpignan match in May 1998 and my whole life has flowed from it. I always wanted to outdo myself for the club for which I had such a wonderful attachment” says Guirado.
His final match for USAP ended in a heartbreaking defeat to Clermont, a result that confirmed their relegation to the second division, the ProD2.
“I used that awful feeling to motivate me throughout my career” he says. But there were also some wonderful moments at a club where you sense Guilhem’s Catalan heart still beats strongly.
“Two of my greatest rugby moments were the 2019 Top 14 Final win with USAP and the European Cup quarter final against Toulon which was played at Montjuïc in Barcelona. It was a wonderful Catalan occasion played in front of a packed crowd in the Olympic Stadium and a win for us 29-26.”
After nine years, 202 matches and 20 tries at Perpignan, he moved 381 kilometers along the coast to Toulon and became part of the star-studded team that won the European Cup at Twickenham on 2nd May 2015 when they beat Clermont 24-18.
Leigh Halfpenny, Juan Martín Hernández, Drew Mitchell, Juan Smith and Bakkies Botha all played for Toulon that day.
Guirado’s playing career has included Perpignan, Toulon and Montpellier along with an international career that ended in the land of the rising scrum on 20th October 2019 when France were defeated in the Rugby World Cup quarter final by Wales.
“My first memory is the first time I played rugby; it was with all my friends in Arles-sur-Tech and the most beautiful thing is we all got to know each other on the rugby field and today we are still sharing our lives and great moments together.”
“I have been lucky to be able to play for my club that made me dream when I was a kid, the Perpignan team USAP, and finally to be able to play with France a few years later and then to play with Toulon and Montpellier with the best players in the oval world.”
He won his first international cap for France on 9th March 2008, replacing Dimitri Szarzewski and coming off the bench against Italy at the Stade de France in a 25-13 victory. “I remember my first cap, a special taste, I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“It was a great pride, a huge honour for all that it means for me and for France.”
Guilhem never took for granted the responsibility and honour of putting on the French jersey.
“I think it’s always an honour to play for and represent France, everything goes more quickly, and it is a bit stressful because of the fear of not being up to the mark. You want your family to be proud of you.”
“I like to know what has happened in the past and immerse myself in it because I also have to represent all the former players. There have been some huge players and great hookers who have gone before me.”
“For me this shirt really represents the welcome given to the Spanish exiles. I am French. I grew up in France; it is a country that was ready to give a welcome to my grandparents so of course I think of them.”
Guirado had to battle for a starting place in the French team with William Servat and Szarzewski, two very talented hookers. But he eventually got his first start in the 2010 November international against Fiji.
Jacques Brunel, who had worked with Guilhem at Perpignan, became French coach after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and he named Guirado as his captain for the 2016 Six Nations. His debut as skipper came against Italy at Stade de France, a match that took on an important significance after Paris had suffered several terrorist atrocities during the latter part of 2015.
There was a nervous eerie build-up to the game, and to see so many armed police and military personnel at a rugby match made for an unusual experience. But on a mild sunny day in the French capital, the national anthem was sung with even more emotion than usual and you could feel the crowd relax as the match progressed.
The whole occasion, and a win for Les Bleus, brought a much-needed smile to a city that had suffered so much.
France won 23-21 through tries by Vakatawa, Chouly and Bonneval although the joy was very nearly curtailed at the very end of the match when a Sergio Parisse drop goal attempt drifted wide.
“In my first match as captain everything went very fast” he says. “Meeting new staff and new players meant an awful lot of pressure.”
Guirado went on to captain France on 33 occasions, winning 12, losing 20 and drawing one.
On captaincy, he says: “I don’t have a specific style; it is mainly a feeling, a lot of conversations and a lot of questioning and the captain is nothing without the players around him.”
The Bleus Brothers is available via the link below from Amazon priced £5.99 with free postage