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Special Feature: Franck Mesnel on 'Le Showbizz', Wilko and winning Grand Slams

By Colin Spiro, 19 March 2010

Franck Mesnel
'The epitome of French coolness
and class' - Franck Mesnel
Photo: Eden Park

On the eve of France's Grand Slam showdown with England FRC talks to former France fly-half (and Grand Slam winner) Franck Mesnel.

Franck Mesnel was once dubbed ?the epitome of French coolness and class?, and it?s certainly hard to refute that tribute, although you won?t find him draped around an espresso in a Paris café puffing away happily on a Gitanes. The coffee, the café and Paris, yes, but smoking is not on the Mesnel agenda.

He looks as fit and fresh now, aged 48, as he did in his prime ? and what a prime! Mesnel trained as an architect but found himself at the centre, or rather fly-half, of the now famed back quintet at Paris side Racing Club de France (now known as Racing-Metro 92) that gave birth to the sobriquet ?Le Showbizz? in the mid 1980s. Not satisfied with playing a flair minded counter-attack game, the capital?s then number one club also took to indulging in a number of ?jokes? while simultaneously engaged in all the seriousness that was and remains French club rugby.

They sported berets while beating Bayonne in the Basque heartland in January 1987, they ?blacked up? in honour of team-mate Vincent Lelano away to Stade Toulousain in April 1988, they donned Pelote outfits away to Biarritz in March 1990. They also, famously, wore pink bow ties in other matches; end even supped champagne served by a butler on the pitch at half time. And yet these guys were serious and, crucially, seriously good.

The fashion antics may have been dreamed up by their confident and cock-sure backs, but the entire team stood as one, and they were good enough to reach two championship finals (winning the latter) during Mesnel?s time there as a player.

The always-classy fly-half was also talented enough to earn 56 French caps, becoming the only player from his country to take part in three World Cups in the process. He may have been admired for his off-the-cuff playing tendencies, but it came as the result of blending natural skills with extreme hard work ? attributes he then took with him through into the business world.

Now his clothing company Eden Park ? formed in conjunction with Racing colleagues Jean-Baptiste Lafond, Eric Blanc, Yvon Rousset and Philippe Guillard - has an annual turnover of more than ?50m and has become a byword for ?Rugby Chic? throughout Europe. He dreams one day of opening a store in New York, but meantime contents himself with riding to work on his scooter, overseeing the design and manufacture of garments from start to finish and then returning home to his Paris apartment in Bohemian Montmartre to spend time with his girlfriend and eight-year-old daughter.

Oh yes, and in-between being an international rugby and now fashion icon, he also finds time to fly planes, either solo or with his 73-year-old father. Cool? Mesnel?s so damned chilled he?s like a humanized refrigerator.

'A touch of fantasy'

?We have a lot of rigour in our company,? he explains. ?We use all the processes and all the methods, and then at the end we just add a touch of fantasy ? and this is working. But you cannot go on with a mixture of rigour and fantasy all the time, this is not possible. For me, I feel more comfortable being extremely close to all the processes and then adding a touch of fantasy at the end. I can think with this strategy,?

Not many of today?s businessmen would describe their work ethos is such poetic terms, but then Mesnel has never been one to be pigeonholed, and he most certainly doesn?t do ?average?. As a fly-half in charge of an outstanding set of backs ? both at club and international level ? he appreciated that the basis of success was preparation. Only once the fundamentals have been mastered could you then add your own personal flourish.

Fan: Franck Mesnel admires the
work ethic of Jonny Wilkinson
Photo: Michael Paler

?In sport the more you are ready physically, the more you are ready to think and be smart,? he says. ?When you are tired you cannot think, and as a fly-half you have to think, you have to move the game ? you have to organize and manage. Today you also have to tackle and when you see what Jonny Wilkinson is doing, or other big fly-halves, you see they are managing all those points. So for Jonny the best way to do that is to be absolutely ready physically, then he has time to think. This is something that is very important for me to do in my job ? don?t make any confusion between reality and fantasy.?

The fact that Franck?s job, and life generally, appears more like fantasy than reality happily passes him by, although he is acutely aware of the benefit of doing something that he loves. ?I am extremely lucky because it was never a job for me, and today it is still not a job ? it is a passion. I am still designing, I am giving the brief at the beginning and I am checking everything at the end, and when I can draw, I draw. But I must also be extremely honest because I have a very strong team around me and thanks to this team because you cannot do everything by yourself.?

And that aspect of teamwork is also key to Mesnel?s creed. It was true during his rugby days, and it remains a cornerstone of his flourishing business.

He?s a long way now from his original plan of being an architect specializing in wood constructions but Mesnel was smart enough to see opportunities when they arose ? both on and off the pitch.

Le Showbizz

After finishing his six-year architecture degree aged 25 he was still weighing up his future possibilities when rugby took centre stage. He contemplated moving to Canada to further his professional career, dallied with the idea of joining the Army to become a helicopter pilot ? the 10 year minimum put him off ? but finally put his energies into representing Racing, whom he had joined from Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1985. Less than 18 months later he was making his debut for France (against the All Blacks) and in 1987 the Eden Park company was formed, specializing in high-end rugby fashion with a ?Showbizz? twist. The company?s pink bow tie logo is a legacy of their playing days, with the Racing side sporting those same pink bow ties when they lost to Toulon in the 1987 French championship final. Indeed, Lafond even presented one to French president Francois Mitterrand just before kick-off, and even though they went down 15-12 to Toulon the pink bow-ties were brought out again when they made the 1990 final. This time they won, beating Agen 22-12 to be crowned French champions (for the first time since 1959), and the legend of the bow tie - and by now company logo - was further enhanced.

?A bow tie in the pink colour was the perfect thing to illustrate our spirit, but we didn?t make any marketing plan on this bow tie ? it was all done by the press. The sports press, the people press and economic press all took the opportunity to talk about these crazy guys called ?Le Showbizz?. All the people were calling us ?Le Showbizz?, and talking about the ?pinky dinky?, the ?dinky bow? ?crazy bow? and things like that,? says Mesnel.

How did they come up with such ideas? Or perhaps that should be why?

?We were all five backs together,? he explains. ?We were divided into apartments in Paris and so we were spending all of our time together. We didn?t just have one dinner together a week, we had a minimum of two or three dinners a week all together. We were thinking what we could do to promote this rugby in France and we were students, without being self-conscious. We were not drinking, we were not smoking, so we had to find a way to express all the energy we had inside.?


They knew some might take it the wrong way ? would you go away to Bayonne and play in a beret? ? but emphasized that their ?jokes? were borne of respect. They also had the skills and wherewithal to win more often than not. ?With such a pressure on our shoulders we had to be good,? Mesnel reaffirms. ?Of course some of them were considering that this was arrogant, but winning the game was first for us,? he adds.

Respect is a word that crops up throughout our interview, and the 56-times capped fly-half gives as well as receives in that regard. ?If you play the game you want to respect your adversary. To have a big game and win by a few points, that is respect. It was like a lawyer who has to defend a strong case with a red nose on. And also, our way of playing was with plenty of French flair, and there were not many sides at that time trying to play with the counter-attack, playing very deep in our half ? and this way of playing was very exciting for us backs.?

Out of such a mentality was the Eden Park brand born. Rugby fashion with a twist ? that ?fantasy? aspect that Mesnel helps impart. The name itself is from the famous New Zealand rugby ground where Mesnel and compatriots played in the 1987 World Cup final. Walk around any town or city in France and you?ll see countless people ? both men and women ? now wearing the Eden Park brand. The fond memories people have for Racing?s ?Le Showbizz? days is certainly a factor, but Mesnel is a business realist and has maintained his success through hard work, careful planning and good teamwork.

?I know where I want to go and I think this brand has a huge future. It is a small, small, small brand right now but I think we?ve got everything to develop it, and I think we have maybe something stronger than all other brands except one or two ? and that?s a true story. I was lucky to be involved and I think we play on this difference. Usually the word you say in English is that you have a ?unique brand?, and I like that. I think it?s quite exceptional to be unique in these times, not following any tendency. And so, of course, we are going to profit from our roots,? he says.

?You don?t have good pilots, you have old pilots?

But while 48-year-old former international admits to being a workaholic, he still finds enough down time to get airborne, so to speak. Mesnel loves nothing more than climbing aboard a Cessna 172, or a Piper, and taking himself off for a spin in the sky.

?I try to fly about twice a month but that?s not enough, that?s for sure,? he says. ?I love it. It?s the way for me to be alone. I was always lucky to be in a team ? in my work and on the field ? but with this passion it?s a way again to be in front of a kind of danger. More than any other thing you have to respect the process and ensure that everything is checked and re-checked, and I love that. I feel comfortable.

?Of course I could use the usual words ? ?I am flying, it?s a dream, and I am with the clouds? blah, blah, blah, but honestly at the moment with my 200 hours of flying I am still learning. And as we say ?You don?t have good pilots, you have old pilots?. That?s it, that?s all there is. At the moment I am a young, young pilot without any strong experience, and I am still learning.?

His father, by contrast is ?a real pilot? having already clocked up more than 3,000 flying hours, and Mesnel Snr and Jnr love to fly off together in the same plane.

?I like that. Sometimes I like to be alone, but for me I honestly feel that it is a strong pleasure to fly with my father. I also like it to be more than one pilot on the plane so we can share the choice. I feel more comfortable with that, and it?s interesting,? he adds.

The remainder of his time he spends ?trying to be a good father?, and Mesnel has learnt that even the busiest schedule must incorporate breathing space. In many ways it is an inherently French ideology.

?There are so many things to do, so many things to think and to see. Too many movies, too many songs, and, and you must stop and be conscious sometimes that some things are beautiful, and just stop to look,? he explains. ?This is the big sentiment of the movie Avatar. In this movie you have about 20 minutes of dream, and I?ve heard that the Americans are coming back and looking at the movie many times to be in those dream conditions. I can understand what they are saying, and we need to stop sometimes just to look at the flowers sometimes, or you will never be happy. And in my job I have to be conscious of that sort of thing if I want to continue to create,? he adds.

Of that there seems little doubt, for Mesnel is a man born to create. Always, of course, with that Parisian touch of class and a certain ?je ne sais quoi?.

Many thanks to Franck Mesnel and Eden Park


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