As the world pauses, and half the planet is confined with Covid19, international sports matches are a distant memory. Many photographers are struggling with inactivity; for athletes, I imagine staying isolated indoors is tough too. In recent months, just before the Iockdown, I made portraits of three stars in a single sport: rugby.
The player : Sergio Parisse
Italian player Sergio Parisse is of the greatest No. 8s ever to have played international rugby. His national team might struggle to be in the top echelons, but on an individual level, only two rugby players in the world have won more test caps than Parisse. He currently plays for Toulon, a city in the South of France that, thanks to its club, has made a major mark on the world rugby map, but at 36 years old, Sergio Parisse has decided it’s time to retire. The Daily Telegraph sent their chief rugby correspondent over to Nice a couple of months ago, and together we drove west from the French Riviera to make Sergio’s portrait at his beachside home.
Once voted the most gorgeous man in world rugby, and no stranger to modelling contracts, Sergio was happy to be directed by a photographer. His beautiful wife stayed nearby during the set-up and shoot, and supplied us with fine Italian coffee and smiles. As the interview was drawing to a close, I noticed how the afternoon sun was creating an interesting possibility for a portrait in the lounge, so asked Sergio to sit there for the second of two set-ups. It was practical, as it happens – I rarely have to photograph subjects who are significantly taller than me, and to take Sergio’s portrait standing, direct, I would have needed a stool.
It is poignant to remember now, only a few weeks later (and after the cancellation of the last matches of the Six Nations 2020 tournament) how excited Serio had seemed, soon to play the final match of his career. Italy would play England in Rome, and his face lit up as he told us how he would be ending in the best way he could have dreamed, emotions and partying a’plenty afterwards.
The ref : Nigel Owens
Nigel Owens is something of a rarity in the world of sport: a celebrity referee. By far the most recognisable and respected referee in rugby, Welshman Nigel has a unique style. Captured by microphone during matches, compilations of his stern but humorous one-liners draw millions of viewers on YouTube. When he’s not refereeing, he hosts shows on Welsh TV and writes a weekly newspaper column.
However, like Parisse, the time had come for him to retire from his best-known role. Last summer’s Rugby Union World Cup in Japan would be Owen’s last big appearance and so the New York Times sent their European sports writer and me, photographer, to make a portrait of him. Owens had come to the South of France to referee the France-Scotland ‘friendly’ in the run-up to the World Cup.
We caught up with Nigel on the morning of match day. It was clear that the interview wouldn’t run late, and there would be minimum time given to the photographer, as he needed to be fresh, and have plenty of unrushed time for a meditation and to put his lucky pants on before the intensity of his evening job. However, he was very amenable to doing two portrait set-ups for me, and walked in the midsummer heat down the backstreets near his hotel in Nice without complaint.
The writer decided it would be good for us to attend the match too. However, getting photographer access pitch-side, just hours before an international match, is easier said than done. I spent much time on the phone that afternoon, getting fobbed off by both stadium management and the French rugby team’s press officers. I was finally told by a hassled Communications Director, barely an hour before the match, that short of having a personal message requesting my access from either the Mayor of Nice or Nigel Owens himself, a last-minute photographer pass was an impossibility, “even for the New York Times”. I quickly called Nigel, called Madame’s bluff and was soon racing down to Nice. I got through various security checks and arrived in the bowels of the stadium, ten minutes before the end of the photographers’ pre-match briefing.
The other photographers, French sports specialists with zoom lenses as long as their legs and green fold-out stools, were all scrabbling to reach the front of the queue for the colour-coded vests that would get them access to the best pitch-side spot. I was regarded as something of an anomaly. Having shown up late and missed hearing most of the rules, I requested the vest colour that no-one else wanted (authorising access only to the side of the field opposite the team benches), and my lens was no longer than my forearm. But I had only one man to photograph, and it suited me well to be able to run up and down the length of the pitch unheeded, waiting for a clear line to Owens, when he was close enough. I did indeed do a lot of running before I got told off for being constantly visible on the TV cameras (I’d missed that part of the briefing) and by half time, my job was done. Read the full New York Times article
The coach : Shaun Edwards
The next Rugby Union World Cup, in 2023, will be held in France. To prepare for a strong home performance, the French national rugby team has had fresh resources come their way and a significant shake-up. In January this year, just before the start of the Six Nations tournament, les Bleus were training in Nice – accompanied by one of their new secret weapons, freshly-hired English defence coach Shaun Edwards.
Fresh from his last job in Wales, the blue sky and sea of the South of France seemed to be suiting Shaun Edwards. A man of few words, he is nevertheless now trying these out in French. Preparing for his portrait the night before, I caught a clip of Shaun being interviewed for French TV the week before, stoically responding to all questions (asked in English) with his new-found French vocabulary. Some of the grammar might have been lacking and the interviewer didn’t appear to understand all the answers, but hats off to Shaun for his dedication. His rugby skills are certainly not in question. As a player, he was the most decorated in rugby league history, and on his watch as defence coach for Wales, the team won 3 Grand Slams and several Six Nations championships.
It was a privilege to meet all three of these rugby world legends. Having learned a bit more about the rules of the game too, I will be waiting with baited breath for rugby action to re-start. Meanwhile, I wish all athletes, coaches and referees a fit and healthy confinement.