You’d have to be a rugby fan with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the game – not to mention quite a few miles on the clock – to know who Lucien Mias is. But I think it’s my duty to change all that after spending an afternoon in the company of this particular 81-year-old Frenchman.
Mias is a former French international living out his latter days in the town of Mazamet, the same place where he spent a large part of his illustrious playing career in the 1950s. It just so happens that Mazamet lies about 90 minutes from my own house in the south west of France. Lucky really, given that someone contacted me out of the blue a couple of weeks ago in the hope that I could track down Monsieur Mias to interview him for a forthcoming official history of the Springboks. He could have been anywhere in France. And France is a big country. But sometimes the Gods smile on you, which is why I ended up in his living room yesterday afternoon enjoying a rather nice chat.
Why on earth would an official history of the Springboks need an interview with an octogenarian former French international? Well, buggered if I knew at first. But things soon became clearer after a bit of research revealed that it was in fact second row Mias who skippered France on their 1958 tour of South Africa, a tour that has now achieved legendary status on account of it being the first time that a touring side managed a series victory against the Springboks that century.
I was full of anxiety when I rang the bell at his unprepossessing house in a quiet and – sorry to report – not very beautiful suburban street on the outskirts of Mazamet. Would Mias be lucid? Would he be able to remember anything of interest from those long-off days over 50 years ago? Would I be able to understand anything of what he said through what I suspected might be a double whammy of false teeth and a thick southern accent? As it turned out I needn’t have worried. The teeth didn’t appear false, though I can’t vouch 100% for that. The accent was decipherable, even if he spoke at a million miles an hour. And the memories? Well they were sharp as a tack as Mias, quite a few pounds over his fighting weight following a double hip replacement and a subsequent lack of mobility, reeled off any number of top stories from those bygone rugby days.
In truth this was less of an interview, more of a monologue as Mias re-lived that exceptional tour. The naivety of an amateur French squad that didn’t really know what apartheid was. The frustrations of simply not being able to communicate with their hosts. The joys of coming up with signature moves that became mythical in French rugby. The thrill of seeing animals that he’d only ever clapped eyes on in books before. The disgrace of blatantly-biased Boer referees who so incensed Mias that he seriously suggested calling the tour off halfway through and buggering off home. And the finalpièce de résistance, the squeakily tight 9-5 victory in the Second Test that followed the 3-3 draw in the first encounter and thus sealed a famous series victory. Mias’s enthusiasm for those days, those games, was as entertaining as it was infectious and I couldn’t help but be moved by such a lovely man recounting such lovely tales of a bygone age when rugby was all about honour and glory, without the slightest thought of a paycheck at the end of a bruising encounter.
Yet while everything Mias had to say about that 1958 tour was interview gold, I have to say that what most impressed me about the man had nothing to do with sepia-tinted recollections and everything to do with a sense of engagement with the modern world. He can’t get out much. The hips are too painful. But Lucien Mias has an understanding of what’s going on all round us thanks to the Internet (“my window to the world”) and satellite TV that’s a wonder to behold. When he went off message, which was often, he talked with passion and understanding about subjects as wide-ranging as the financial crisis in London, his fears of a plethora of head trauma injuries affecting modern day players in later life (he’s a qualified doctor, by the way!), his latest dissertation on the need for holistic palliative care and why the English Empire couldn’t help but make us lot arrogant sons of bitches! Don’t worry. I didn’t take it personally!
To see someone who’s retained his love of rugby – and more importantly, of life – well into his twilight years was truly inspiring. This is a man who’s lived this thing called life – with all its crazy twists and lunatic turns – to the full. And there’s no sense of bitterness about the fact that he never earned a Franc out of the game he still loves. Quite the opposite, in fact. Because Lucien Mias seems to have known where to find personal happiness and fulfillment, which isn’t in an over-bulging bank account. And if that’s not the point of life when you finally get to cashing in your chips, then I for one don’t know what is.