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Rewind to 1921 ... French captain refuses to play against England

Five days before the France-England match the news fell like 'a clap of thunder'. France's captain had refused to play.

No, not Guilhem Guirado, who while more than capable of standing up for himself is unlikely ever to refuse his country's call. This was 95 years ago, and the refusenik was scrum-half Philippe Struxiano.

Struxiano had been France's captain since the inter-forces internationals of 1919. In 1920, he had led them through their best Five Nations season yet, with no hammerings and a first ever away victory, a five-try 15-7 demolition of Ireland on a Dublin mudheap.

He was captain-coach of Toulouse and team-mate Adolphe Jaureguy reckoned him "the most cunning, scheming and resourceful of captains". One ruse recalled by Jaureguy was Struxiano rousing a team-mate who played best when angry by pulling his hair and telling him an opponent was responsible.

He came close in 1920 to scheming France's first ever victory over Wales, taking a quick throw in and receiving a return pass before diving over for what looked the winning score, only to have it ruled out following the intervention of the Welsh touch judge. Wales won 6-5 and Struxiano -- who with opposite number Fred Reeves had already endeared himself to referee Colonel Craven with crooked put-ins so persistent that the Colonel took to feeding the scrum himself -- made no effort to hide his anger.

What we know of him comes inevitably from written accounts rather than live action. But we do have film, taken at the 1920 playoff between Toulouse and Racing Club, which gives us a sense of the man.

Focussed largely on the teams pre-match it shows a restless, energetic figure who, even if he were not the only one holding a ball, would compel attention as he fiddles with the ball, pulls faces and talks to team-mates.

That personality is even clearer when the two captains are shown by themselves. Racing's Roger Lerou, possessor of a spectacular mop of hair, seems slightly self-conscious. Struxiano clearly enjoys the attention.

While a native of Toulouse, born there on Mar. 11, 1891, he came to rugby by an unusual route. He played football well enough to be a reserve for the national team in 1910 before changing codes and progressing so rapidly that he was an integral member of Toulouse's first championship winners -- the 'Red Virgins' of 1912, so called because they went through the season unbeaten -- and won two caps in 1913. He had an eventful war, getting wounded in 1915 and eventually transferring to the air corps. But unlike many of France's best players from before 1914, he survived and was part of a small core of experience the selectors used as they reconstructed in 1919 and 1920.

Possessor of a long pass and, as might be expected, an excellent kicker, he was also appreciative of good forward play, memorably telling Jaureguy that "if you give me eight forwards like mules, we will beat the English".

His own mulish qualities got him known as 'L'intraitable' -- the Uncomprising One -- and were made very clear in 1921. Ruled out of the matches in Edinburgh and Cardiff because of injury, he was recalled against England. Then came his refusal to play.

There were, he told L'Auto, predecessor of L'Equipe, several reasons. He was unhappy that he had not been allowed to travel with the team to Edinburgh, had then been chosen as reserve against Wales while still unfit and that, as captain, he had no role in selection. It was a time, renowned French journalist Henri Garcia has written, when French rugby officials increasingly treated players like employees.

A meeting with French Federation officials evidently produced a "frank exchange of views", but Struxiano emerged saying "it's fine, I'll play tomorrow", only to change his mind by the time he reached the Stade Colombes in Paris.

He remained adamant, withstanding even the entreaties of Marshal Foch, France's most revered soldier, who attended the match to unveil a memorial to rugby's war dead. Struxiano did not play for France again.

It was, Garcia has noted, the first notable rebellion against officialdom by a French player, but certainly not the last.

And he may not have been in the ideal frame of mind when he led Toulouse in the French championship final just under three weeks later. He ground on with nine-man tactics even when Perpignan were reduced to 14 men by an injury, and changed tack too late to prevent Perpignan winning 5-0.

Virulently criticised and self-exiled from the national team, he was doubly determined to go out on a high in 1922. A decade on from his first championship and the sole holdover from the 'Red Virgins', he led a Toulouse team which included 11 internationals to a 6-0 victory over Bayonne in the final in Bordeaux.

But not all was well behind the scenes. Angered by errors from his backs he had applied nine-man tactics with "an iron hand" in the playoff against Beziers, relenting only in the final stages -- and with his gifted threequarters close to revolt -- to allow Jaureguy to settle the contest with a 90-metre dash. Back-rower Jean Bayard, who expressed his discontent violently, and centre Alex Bioussa were late exclusions from the final XV because Struxiano felt they had been indisciplined at training.

Struxiano ran for the club committee expecting reward for his services over a decade, but had made too many enemies. Defeated, he departed in dudgeon to a player-coach role at Avignon, while the altogether more relaxed, beret-wearing, centre Francois Borde led Toulouse to four more championships -- the first of their great eras of dominance -- in the next five seasons.

Struxiano was to return to Toulouse and become club president from 1951 to 1954, dying in 1956. His name is commemorated in a suburban ground in Toulouse, but much more in rugby's folklore. A catchy name helps, of course, as does being a key figure in the earliest triumphs of arguably Europe's greatest club. But most of all, he goes down as a charter member of that vital, colourful faction: the Awkward Squad.