France hopes for help from above in Six Nations
- 23 February 2013
- From the section Magazine
France started this year's Six Nations rugby championship as the favourites but then lost their first two games against Italy and Wales. This weekend they will try to redeem their honour when they take on England - and they may have a powerful trick up their sleeve.
While the French will be fully behind their team in the Six Nations, nowhere will the passion be greater than in the south-west of the country where rugby is king.
Most of the players on the national side come from the region.
In fact it is one of the few places in Europe - apart from some Welsh valleys - where young boys want to grow up to be rugby players rather than football stars.
Local cafes in beautiful villages have names like Fair Play or The Oval Ball.
This year the French say they have a generation of new players who will dazzle on the international stage, like Wesley Fofana, as well as comeback kids at the top of their game like Fred Michalak.
But they may have another very powerful force working to their advantage - divine intervention.
Rugby is a religion in this corner of France and, to prove it, all you have to do is head to La Chapelle Notre Dame Du Rugby - literally the Chapel of Our Lady of Rugby.
Perched on a hillside surrounded by forest on the outskirts of the small village of Larriviere-Saint-Savin (about two hours south of Bordeaux), the small, simple but elegant chapel gives little away at first.
There is one clue as you approach the entrance. In an exterior alcove below the bell tower, is a statue of the Virgin Mary being handed a rugby ball by a small boy.
But it is when you go inside the chapel - which unlike most rural churches these days is always open - that you quickly realise this is no ordinary place of worship.
The beautiful stained-glass windows show rugby scenes - there is one of a scrum, another of the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus in her arms, while Jesus, himself, is preparing to throw a rugby ball into a line-out.
In another the Virgin Mary is cradling an injured player in her arms.
Old rugby boots dangle by their laces next to the altar and along the walls there is proof that a Who's Who of the world of rugby through the decades have come here.
There are photos and newspaper articles of players displayed alongside jerseys worn by the stars of the past, such as Serge Blanco or Fabien Pelous with simple messages of support for the volunteers who look after the chapel.
To understand the chapel's connection with the sport, you have to go back to a tragic event in 1964. Three young players with the well-known local club Dax were killed in a car crash after a game.
The community grieved. A local priest Michel Devert convinced everyone that the forgotten, ruined chapel should become a place of remembrance for the young players and a centre of worship for the world of rugby.
These days, the restored chapel is in a beautiful state and even has a busy committee called the Friends of Notre Dame raising funds and getting players around the world to send in mementos.
One of the committee members is Benoit Dauga, a former captain of the French side who played for his country 60 times.
Several priests in the diocese take it in turns to hold masses at the chapel, including one who once played for the most successful club in French rugby, Stade Toulouse.
There are only a few simple wooden pews and just one official service a year at Pentecost, which is packed and spills over outside - especially when the weather is good and the local rugby clubs bring along brass bands.
Often an additional mass is held ahead of particularly important international games or tournaments when French honour is at stake. The events are usually filmed and broadcast on the French news channels.
But one priest, Gilbert Lavigne, told me that, while he prays for all the players, he never prays for a French victory. He says God believes it's up to the Quinze de France (the French 15) to do the hard work.
Alas, you will not see so much fair play in the comments left in the visitors' book on the altar.
Most of the visitors are men who visit during the Six Nations tournament or over the summer when on holiday in the area, taking a break from the beach to make a special pilgrimage to the site.
So sifting through the pages of comments left over the years, you will find absolute pride and admiration for the chapel but rather less for foreign teams - especially England:
"This team would need nothing less than a miracle to win anything."
"Forgive them their sins on the pitch."
And their heartfelt prayer - "Please, when will the Virgin Mary bear a fly-half worthy of the name?"
How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:
BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 and some Thursdays at 11:00.
BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.