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Monday, July 04, 2011

Barette - solving the mystery of French rugby?

More on the French game of Barette has now come to light.

As mentioned yesterday, this was a game that was very similar to rugby and was widely played by women in France in the 1920s.

Digging round a bit more I have discovered that the game was rather older than the 1880s, as described yesterday. That seems to be the date when the game was codified, with one set of rules based on the way the game was played in Paris. However the game was far older than that, and was mainly played - to a range of varying rules - in the south west of France, or in other words the very areas of that country where rugby is the principle game today.

Barette was - in effect - "French football", a game developed from a variety of local football-type games, much in the same way that rugby and soccer developed in England - and for much the same reasons (ie, so it could be played in schools, and so that schools could play each other).

The game they came up (and there are more details here) with was spookily similar to rugby, so that the sports looked practically identical. However the differences were there - and significant. To tackle the ball carrier you had to touch not the player (as it had seemed in the films) but the ball itself. If you managed that and called "hit" or "touch", a scrum was formed. However, originally this was a circle of players who gathered round the ball after it was dropped on the ground and kicked it until it emerged from the circle (clearly by the 1920s a rugby style scrum had replaced this near chaos).

In fact, the more you look at it the more it seems be the answer to one intriguing question. After all, why did rugby gain such a hold in France? It is the only country outside the Empire to ever fully embrace the game (though admittedly the USA came close). And the answer seems to be barette - a local game that was so similar to rugby that it must have been very easy (and tempting) switch from a "quaint" local "schoolchildren's" game to a sport that not only offered the prospect if international competition but - at the time - seemed likely to be the world's leading football code. And with barette so popular in the south west it is also no surprise to see that rugby also became hugely popular in that region.

This also probably explains barette's eventual disappearance - because the leading suspect in the death of barette must be rugby itself. By the 1920s only women seem to be playing it, and then all it needed was a change in attitudes to women playing sport  - as happened at the same time in England (where women's soccer was banned) and in Australia (where women's rugby league suffered the same fate) - and the sport died. Today no-one appears to play barette anywhere.

Which just leaves one question - what did the women (such as those above) think they were playing? If asked if they were playing rugby would they have said "yes - it is the women's form of the rugby" (much as camogie is the women's form of hurling, or netball was for many years the women's version of basketball), or would they have insisted that - despite appearances - it was a totally different sport? I suspect the former, but as its now nearly 80 years since barette was played we will probably never know.

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