Inside View – Article 3
Fighting for the future
The Rugby World Cup players inspiring the next generation
The Rugby World Cup players inspiring the next generation
“Running was not the answer. When I ran, the outcome was the same. I needed to face them.”
David Gérard isn’t talking about his time as a professional rugby player for Bordeaux, Toulouse or Northampton. He’s recalling the violent gangs who targeted him throughout his youth on the streets of his hometown, Toulon.
“I would fight, not because I’d want to, but because I had no choice,” he says. “You walk in the town and you have four, five, six people jumping on you, just to fight. You have to grow up as quick as possible, because if you’re still a kid in your head, they’re going to destroy you.”
David, now Portugal’s forwards coach, decided that running away was pointless and that facing his attackers head-on was the only way. This early lesson is something he’s carried throughout his life and it’s helped form the person and mentor he is today.
I needed to face them”
Understanding where someone comes from gives you a clearer picture of who they’ve become. In David’s case, it’s a person who’s resilient, funny and kind, a person who never settles and always gives back.
To understand who David is and how he became a European Champions Cup-winning player and Portugal coach at Rugby World Cup 2023, we need to go back to where he came from: a tough neighbourhood in Toulon.
“I’m from a poor area,” he says. “The rugby here is not just a sport, it’s part of me.” As a teenager, David didn’t see rugby as just a hobby, it was something that could lift him out of poverty, as well as the regular violence he encountered on the streets.
“It saved my life,” he says with a shrug. “And my family’s too.” At 17, he shocked his family and friends by deciding to leave his hometown to sign for Bordeaux, almost 500 miles away. “If I’d stayed in Toulon, I’d be in trouble,” he says. “Most of the clubs in France wanted me to sign and if I did nothing, it would be the worst choice in my life.
“Sometimes you have to lose comfort if you want to achieve something great, something huge. I needed to lose my comfort and my family too because by leaving I lost everything.”
Everyone should be able to tell their own story, which is why we’ve given players and coaches like David cameras to document their lives in sport, and life all around it.
Rugby saved my life”
Alone in a new city, David had a different kind of fight on his hands in Bordeaux. “I was the only kid on this professional team,” he says. “It was up to me to find my place among players who were the same age as my father. I fought to find my spot and for three years I just played every game for Bordeaux.”
Rugby changed David’s life. Through this Inside View series, we want to change the way people see sport. In empowering the Portugal squad to tell their own stories, not only are we seeing rugby in a new light, but the players are seeing themselves with a new perspective too – from their position on the pitch, to their position in life.
David expects the younger players in the Portuguese team to refuse to get comfortable and to fight for everything; two things he has done since he was a boy.
In 2000, he left for Toulouse, a club where he would win the top accolades in the sport, more than once. Yet, after winning his second Heineken Cup trophy in 2005, he felt unhappy and that he’d become too comfortable. He needed to “put myself in danger one more time”. In 2006, he left for Northampton Saints.
“I just arrived in England at a club where nobody wanted,” he says. “I was the only French player on the team. For a few weeks, nobody was speaking to me, they’d say hello and goodbye. “I needed to fight again. It was different because I was not a kid anymore, I was a French international.”
David’s illustrious playing career, his constant desire to push his own limits and his instinct to fight is a constant theme that has shaped his approach to how he lives as a person and behaves as a coach.
“I took a lot of things from everywhere. It’s why, when I’m coaching, I’m a bit French, I’m a bit Portuguese, I’m a bit English, I’m a bit South African, because I took everything and I built myself. All my life is around rugby.”
Throughout his professional career and his roles as a coach, David has dedicated his time and money to a wide range of charities – helping people in hospitals, prisons and beyond. He prides himself on being there for people, whether they’re his players, his family or those who need it most.
Why? Because sometimes just showing up means more than money. “It’s better for me to bring things to people. Sometimes not money, it’s your presence. You bring smiles, you bring passion, you bring dreams sometimes.”
You have to change, you can’t bring your sadness with you”
This is when the 6ft 6in former rugby player’s gentler side emerges. He recalls a profound moment during a game of chess with a young girl at a children’s hospital. “I was in front of a girl… and she looked at me and said, ‘stop looking at me like this’.
“She said: ‘You think I’m not lucky to be like this? I’m not lucky, but I have no choice. But do not look at me like an animal or somebody who is going to die next week. I will die maybe next month or in a few months, but please do not look at me like this’. She was a 12-year-old girl and she destroyed me.
“I felt sorry about this. You have to change, you can’t be like this, you can’t bring your sadness with you. She doesn’t need to see that. “Things like this make us richer people. I do what I need to do, for myself and for other people.”
Through the people he’s met and the stories he’s seen, David is able to see his own life and career for what it is: a dream. And in sharing that dream he believes he can make a difference. “And that made me think my life was not so easy, but then it was a dream. For me to be doing what I’m doing now, a rugby coach and a professional player, it’s a dream.
“I feel lucky; and because I feel lucky, I need to speak to them [the people he meets through his charity work] and explain: a lot can happen. Sometimes you have to do one more sacrifice, sometimes you have to do one more step to achieve that.” Coaches like David and the Portugal players are using the handheld Canon Powershot V10 to take us behind the scenes at the Rugby World Cup.
Despite offers to coach in his homeland and an approach from Portugal’s national team, David turned to his nine-year-old daughter for advice. As part of her rugby education, he had shown her footage of Japan’s historic victory over South Africa in Rugby World Cup 2015. Seeing Japan’s supporters with tears of joy, she instantly knew her father should take up the challenge of coaching Portugal’s players to create more moments like that. “She said ‘go with them’. I said, ‘why’? She said, ‘because I want to see you happy’.”
It’s human stories like this that continually inspire his love for rugby. To David, statistics and what happens on the pitch only form part of the picture. It’s the people behind the game that interest him more – and it’s something he’s using Canon cameras to capture at the Rugby World Cup.
“Rugby is just rugby, it’s a sport,” he says. “We are humans who play sport, with troubles, with bad things in our lives, with good things, and this is great.”
“What’s more important to me is that I’m coaching a tighthead prop from France who has a wife, who has kids, who likes pasta, who hates rice, who laughs when you say something dirty, and who cries when you say you have to lose two kg.”
“I say to my players, if one of you has to cry in front of me, you have to cry. If one of you has to be aggressive in front of me, you have to be aggressive. Do not hide something, life is not like this.”
Whether its his players, his daughter or the people he helps through charity work, David hopes to inspire everyone to achieve things they thought impossible. Something great or something “not normal”.
Of course, he wants Portugal to win as many games as possible, but he is always looking beyond the sport to focus on the humanity behind it.
We need to be afraid to lose our human side and what made us play rugby”
“I want my daughter and everyone to feel something when they watch the boys play. To feel that we are not afraid when we play. We are not afraid to lose a game.
“We need to be afraid to lose our human side instead and what made us play rugby in the first place. I want my players to feel this. “I want her, at nine years old, to feel that too. To feel emotion because it’s what I want all people to feel. By seeing somebody fighting on the pitch, not for a result, more for pride, for faith. Faith is my favourite word. You need to have faith. Faith that the boys have the capacity to do something great.”
And although David says winning or losing isn’t everything, his love of sports movies projects into his dreams as he prepares for Portugal’s next Rugby World Cup 2023 match.
“I love sports movies because something not normal happens. And if one day Portugal do something not normal, then maybe we have a movie. And maybe Bruce Willis is going to play my father!”
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