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The last time I saw Olivier Magne he broke my heart.
The date was 1999, the location Twickenham Stadium in London. The occasion, the Rugby World Cup semi-final between France and New Zealand’s (then) supposedly invincible All Blacks.
Seven minutes into the second half the match was going entirely to script. The All Blacks led by 24-10, largely thanks to their man mountain winger Jonah Lomu (below) who was proving unstoppable, passing the French defence as easily as if being waved through Parisian rush-hour traffic by a friendly gendarme.
Then all hell (if you were a New Zealand supporter) broke loose. In a few breathless minutes the French rose up from nowhere, scoring tries, drop goals and penalties with seeming impunity, racing to a 43-24 lead in front of an astonished Twickenham crowd and a shell-shocked opposition.
The All Blacks scored what is commonly known as a consolation try in the last seconds to bring the final score to 43-31 but in truth it was no consolation. No consolation at all. In fact I still shudder at the memory and will forever wonder where that irresistible force (which had been nowhere to be seen in the first half) came from.
Part of the answer was Olivier Magne. Playing on the side of the scrum, he had what Wikipedia describes as a ‘barnstorming’ game. Wrong. Barn flattening more like it. That day, and indeed throughout his career Magne had it all. Ferocious in the tackle, fast around the field, physically courageous in the extreme and blessed with great hands, he played 89 tests for France and ranks as one of the great back-row forwards in French and international rugby history.
Roll forward nearly 12 years, and I met Olivier again. But this time face to face. About as close, in fact, as Olivier was all day to All Blacks fly half Andrew Mehrtens on that far-off famous Twickenham afternoon.
Olivier was in Singapore this month to attend the Singapore Tax Free Asia Pacific show. But this time he was here not to promote rugby but another great French tradition – wine.
He is now part of French wine company Peuch & Besse (www.Peuch-besse.com), which is offering a series of upscale travel retail exclusive wines from different French winemakers (the range is dubbed ‘un vin, un vigneron’ or ‘one wine, one winemaker’).
Together (below) with colleague Sylvain Combe and winemaker Isabelle Gec-Peuch (creator of a fine Grand Cru Saint-Émilion called Chateau Gravet-Renaissance that we sampled, among others, on the company’s stand), he helped create a very positive impression for Peuch & Besse in Singapore.
[Left to right: Olivier Magne, Sylvain Combe, Isabelle Gec-Peuch, Martin Moodie]
The company already enjoys a significant presence in travel retail (it works with Aelia, Nuance, Belgian Sky Shops, Saresco Afrique and Aer Rianta International, for example), particularly at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport where Chateau Gravet-Renaissance is number one, but it is steadily making gains elsewhere too.
That’s not just down to the quality of the wines (mainly Bordeaux but also Chablis and Côtes du Roussillon) but also to a highly innovative approach to consumer technology. This allows browsing consumers to simply scan the bottle’s QR code via various Smartphone applications (there are numerous downloadable QR and barcode reading apps)) and link through to information on the wines and some beautifully shot high-definition video footage of the ten wineries and interviews with the individual winemakers (click here for an example).
“Usually with wines you cannot identify the winemaker behind the story,” Olivier told me. “Whereas we wanted to keep the [association between] the ten wines and their winemakers very close.”
“It’s an authentic story,” added Sylvain. “We think it’s very important to give an authentic story to the customer.”
“For Asian people, it’s very important to get more information on the wines they are going to drink,” said Olivier, referring to booming sales of quality French wine in the region. “When they are faced with many, many wines, they can see this [scanning] concept and get a lot of information. But it’s also about quality – that’s the main thing for us, to guarantee the quality. So the next time the consumer visits they will buy these wines with their eyes closed.”
This consumer-friendly approach extends to the back label, which (unusually for French wines) includes a full break-down of the grape varieties.
It’s a superb mix of old world winemaking and new age technology and the passion of the company breathes as boldly as the wines themselves.
[Olivier Magne (centre) with Rémy Cointreau Global Travel Retail Managing Director Peter Sant and Martin Moodie at the TFWA Asia Pacific show in Singapore]
Of course I can’t let the occasion of our interview go without a few rugby references. I know the answer, of course, to my first question – what was Olivier’s most memorable game? – but respect demands that I ask it anyway.
“Of course [it was that 1999 semi-final],” he replies. “Before the match we were given no chance to win. But we did it. Everyone was there, my brother, my parents, so there was a lot of emotion.”
At half time, did Olivier and the French team really believe they had any chance of a miracle comeback? “Jonah Lomu had scored two fantastic tries,” he recalls. “But we felt we were not so far from them. And I remember one thing about [fellow player and now French coach] Marc Lievremont ten minutes after the break, when he said ‘Look at the All Blacks’ heads – they are beginning to lose the game. We could feel the All Blacks’ heads drop; we were winning mentally even though [at that stage] we weren’t winning the match. It was an incredible sensation.”
And the greatest player he ever came up against? All Black Jeff Wilson (part of that 1999 team) gets an honourable, perhaps political, mention, but overall it was England’s Martin Johnson (captain of the 2003 World Cup winning team) who gains the ultimate plaudits.
“He was a very influential player,” Olivier says. “I played in his [invitation] team at Twickenham against the All Blacks and we were losing three minutes before the end. Martin Johnson spoke to us under our own posts and said ‘We’re not going to lose it’. It was his last game and just for fun but still he did not want to lose. And we scored in the 83rd minute and won.”
More painful memories for the interviewer, but still I press on, a tiger for punishment. After all, it’s not every day you get the chance to chat with a rugby legend over a glass of fine wine. Who will win the 2011 Rugby World Cup, being played for the first time in 24 years in New Zealand?
“I have to say that the French team is not playing very well at the moment but it’s always the case with France that you never know,” he replies. “You just never know. Anything can happen.”
Indeed. Any Kiwi who has watched All Blacks-France World Cup games in recent years will concur ruefully with that sentiment. I wished Olivier well, but not too well, in his rugby dreams. But in his new wine industry career I toasted his success warmly. The wines are excellent, the use of new technology admirable, the passion that he and Sylvain possess there for all to see.
Two weeks later as I write this Blog late at night, I am sipping on a glass of Isabelle Gec-Peuch’s beautifully silky Château Gravet-Renaissance. Try as I might, I can’t put out of my mind a certain rugby match 12 years ago when another sort of French renaissance, led by one Olivier Magne and 14 other inspired Frenchmen dashed the dreams of countless Kiwis around the globe. What a pity I didn’t know this wine way back then – I may just about have been able to drown my sorrows.
[Look out for an extensive interview with Olivier Magne and Sylvain Combe on The Moodie Report.com coming soon].