A church where faith in French rugby is strong
23 September 2007
LARRIVIERE ST SAVIN (AFP) – Some have said that it may take divine intervention for hosts France to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy on October 20 at the Stade de France.
Such is the power and prestige of the mighty All Blacks – France’s probable quarter-final opponents – that few have faith in ‘Les Bleus’ and their chances of glory.
That cannot be said of the curious rugby-loving sect at Larrivierre St Savin, though.
For that is the site of a church dedicated to rugby, where rugby-loving pilgrims come to pray for the fortunes of their beloved national team.
And if the French stride majestically all the way to the final and lift the trophy that was denied them in the finals of 1987 and 1999, then a sign of gratitude might just be due to the Notre-Dame du Rugby chapel.
Anyone tempted to mock the faithful, though, might wish to reflect a moment first when discovering that France captain Raphael Ibanez once numbered among them as he was born in the tiny village which now has a population of 620.
“There have been many visits to the chapel since the start of the World Cup,” said 84-year-old abbot Michel Devert.
“Amateur rugby players, professional players and even the captain of France, and that brings a lot to our community,” he added.
Ibanez was actually born in nearby Saugnac et Cambran and in this region, everyone and everything pays homage to him and to the French national team.
Public buildings, the Town Hall, the Post Office and even private homes are decked out in the colours of the French national team while photos of Ibanez are on display all over town, accompanied by messages of encouragement such as “All alongside Rapha (his nickname),” and “Go on Rapha, we’re all with you. You’ll lift this cup.”
Now, the legend of Notre-Dame du Rugby has built up to such an extent that it has also become something of a tourist attraction. It is not just the faithful who come to pray but tourists attracted by curiosity flock through the door.
An 11th century church, Notre-Dame du Rugby was restored in 1963 and dedicated to rugby by abbot Devert following the deaths of several famous rugby players from the region.
Buried deep inside a forest that stands imposingly over the village, the road to the church was even opened with the help of many rugby players from the region, according to abbot Devert, who himself played as a hooker – the same position as Ibanez and a former mathematics pupil of his Marc dal Maso who was second string to Ibanez at the 1999 World Cup – in the military team during his national service.
Any visitors to the chapel unaware of its rugby tradition would soon have their eyes opened as it is decorated with rugby memorabilia, from shirts to balls to the stained-glass window that shows the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus, who in turn is clutching a rugby ball.
A prayer from Abbot Devert to the Virgin Mary has a distinct rugby slant:
“Stand beside us to give us strength and desire in our quest for victory. But also stand beside us in the terrible scrum of existence until we emerge victorious in the great game of life.”
According to the mayor of the little village of just 620 inhabitants, Notre-Dame du Rugby welcomes around 10,000 visitors each year, including a pilgrimage of players from all over the world on Easter Monday.
And if France do lift the World Cup in little over four weeks’ time, that number may multiply as even more visitors flock to the scene where divine intervention was cajoled into favouring ‘Les Bleus’.
Subject: French news