‘Rugby is the reason for my move to France’

International rugby referee shares his love of Gers and the difference between French and English rugby

Ian Bullerwell in his international rugby refereeing days; Mr Bullerwell and his wife moved to Gers permanently in 2012
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An English international rugby referee was lured to France after blowing the whistle in an international match – which France lost.

Ian Bullerwell officiated at a test match between France and Romania on a May bank holiday in Auch in Gers department in 1990.

Played in pouring rain, the match saw Romania run out winners 12 points to six, the last time that Romania beat France although they have played 15 test matches since.

“After the game I had a day free before I was due to catch a train for Paris, where I was the English representative at a conference,” said Mr Bullerwell.

“One of the French rugby chaps, kindly offered to show me the region, rather than have me sit in the hotel all day, and I was just bowled over.

“It was then that I decided it would be a good place to have a home, and eventually my wife and I bought a place and did it up.”

They moved to Gers permanently in 2012, and have dual British-French nationality.

Read more: Is French citizenship often refused due to lack of cultural knowledge?

Met his wife through rugby

Mr Bullerwell said he had always loved France, having learned the language at school, and visited the country often.

His wife, Suzanne, was also a francophile, having worked as a ski instructor in the Alps for a decade.

Rugby brought them together – Suzanne was working at Bedford School in England when he was involved with the local rugby club, which has strong links with the school.

‘I could not referee a game today’

He started refereeing after being forced to step back from playing when he sustained a back injury.

Eventually he gave up refereeing too after the 1991 World Cup, to concentrate on his burgeoning insurance broker business.

“The game has changed tremendously since I was playing and refereeing and I would not be able to referee a game today,” he said.

“It is all to do with the game turning professional – as well as the players, top referees have to be professional too.”

‘France has chance to win thanks to coach’

Speaking before the World Cup started, Mr Bullerwell said his heart was with France going all the way to lift the trophy.

“They have been in two finals and lost, and I know the French rugby establishment is very keen to win this year, in France.”

Read more: Rugby exclusive: How France became the team to beat in World Cup

He credits their strong chances to the influence of Fabien Galthié, their head coach, who played for France and captained the side at the 2003 World Cup.

“From what I can see, he has the full backing of officials and has set up the systems in the way he wants, which is very different from the situation with the English coach,” said Mr Bullerwell.

“Among the changes he has made is bringing in an Englishman, Shaun Edwards, as the defence coach, and that has made all the difference. We still see the French flair but now it is matched with a modern defence.

“You can never tell with rugby, but I really feel that this year France have a good chance of winning.”

‘French captain was reading a paper and smoking a cigarette’

Mr Bullerwell said French players had a different attitude to rugby in the amateur days.

“I remember, when I was the touch judge before a test match, going in to check the studs on the boots of the French team about 10 minutes before kick-off.

“Sitting in the dressing room reading a paper and smoking a cigarette was Serge Blanco (a famous fullback and French captain) and no one thought it was odd! Somehow I do not think that would happen now.

“Even then it was a complete contrast to the atmosphere 10 minutes before the match in most other team changing rooms.”

‘Quite frankly, I do not see England doing very well’

As for English rugby, Mr Bullerwell believes the system needs a thorough overhaul, pointing to the fact that three top-flight clubs have folded due to money problems, and the perennial club versus country conflicts for players.

“Another thing which makes no sense is the ban on English players being selected for the national team if they play outside of England,” he said. “There are some English lads playing for French clubs who could walk into the team, but they are being ignored.

“Quite frankly I do not see England doing very well in the tournament, which is a shame.”

‘The game has changed by going professional’

Being in Gers means the Bullerwells are in the middle of France’s historic South West rugby heartland.

“We have our local teams who play every Sunday and we are only an hour away from Toulouse and its rugby team, and only a little further is Bordeaux.”

Rugby helped him make friends and renew friendships when he moved to France, and he says people he meets during his work as a gardener and handyman in the department are usually happy to talk sport too.

“The game has changed by going professional.

“Players are bigger overall than they have ever been and there are some questions about the direction it is taking,” he said.

“But it still means a lot to so many, many people.”

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