Rugby Union: Califano at the forefront of France's aggressive first line of defence

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Christian Califano, France's admired tight-head prop, is ready to exorcise the spectre of a humiliating defeat as the Tricolores confront England today, he tells Ian Borthwick in Paris.

Rugby has been good to Christian Califano. The Toulouse tight-head prop, who wins his 37th cap for France today, is one of the best-paid players in France, and although the sums of money here have not yet reached the ruinous amounts being dished out in England, the 25-year-old has come a long way from the housing estate in Toulon where he grew up.

Toulon, the macho naval town on the Mediterranean shores, is known as one of the hotbeds of rugby in France, and the suburb of La Valette, like so many nameless, soulless mass-housing developments which are the blight of French city life, is notorious for breeding hard men, and adolescents with a delinquent streak.

These days, Califano remains understandably discreet about his misspent youth, and prefers not to talk about the difficult years he spent growing up in La Valette with his mother and two sisters. "I am not ashamed of where I come from. But I alone know what I went through in my adolescent years. I prefer not to go over it again, but it is true that without rugby, things might have ended up badly for me."

A Grand Slam champion with France last year, he has also been on a high with his club Stade Toulousain, which he joined from Toulon in 1992, winning four national championship titles in a row. Unanimously admired in France for his uncomplicated but genuine human warmth, he always has a moment for the beret-wearing pensioners who stop him in the streets of Tolouse, and in the recent school holidays, seeing a group of idle teenagers near his club grounds, he grabbed a football, went over to talk to them, and the next thing Califano and the youngsters were having a kickaround on a near-by pitch. "Rugby has changed my life, and in everything I do, I just try to give back to the game everything it has given me."

One of the ironies of his career is that he first won selection for France at the expense of his childhood friend, Marc de Rougemont. Born eight days apart in the same clinic in La Valette, "Cali" and "Rouge" were inseparable in their youth, and when De Rougemont was a late withdrawal from the 1994 tour to New Zealand, it was Califano who took his place.

Luck continued to be on Califano's side, as he won his first cap on that tour - against the All Blacks in Christchurch - and has never looked back. Virtually an automatic choice in the French front row, Califano has developed into arguably one of the best front-row forwards in the world, capable of playing on either side of the scrum. His rotund, teddy-bear appearance belies a powerful frame capable of bench-pressing 160 kilos, but perhaps the most surprising aspect is his remarkable speed for a man of 109kg. At a recent French squad session Califano reeled off some sprint times which embarrassed a number of the threequarters. His 12.03 seconds for the 100 metres is perhaps nothing exceptional, but 3.07sec over 20 metres and 6.49 over 50 put him among the fastest in the team. It is hardly surprising to learn, then, that his secret desire is to play centre threequarter, preferably alongside Thomas Castaignede. "I just need to lose 10 kilos or so, and we could form a brilliant tandem: the perfect combination of the tactician and the battering ram!"

One of the few to have emerged with any credit from the disastrous two- Test series against the Springboks last November, this passionate and tireless competitor, was also one of the most deeply affected by the record-breaking 52-10 loss at the Parc des Princes. It was an occasion which was supposed to have been the Tricolores' emotional farewell to the famous Paris stadium, but it ended like a knife in the heart for this normally effervescent character.

After the match Califano spoke and walked like a man in a daze. According to close friends, it took him days to get over the shock, and while many people considered him to be the player of the year in France, he felt like a humbled schoolboy. "There were so many famous ex-internationals in the stands that day, and I wanted so much to be worthy of them," he confided. "Jerome Gallion was there: when I was a kid growing up in Toulon, he was my hero. But now I don't know if I can ever look him in the eyes again."

Today's game against England is a chance for Califano and his team-mates to erase that memory, and what he calls the shame and humiliation of the defeat. "We know that we have to respond to the new challenges that England represents. We all saw how they performed against New Zealand in the Twickenham game last December, and we are aware of the efforts we have to make to prevent them from scoring," he says.

The opening game of the Stade de France may be a little early for Califano to exercise his talents as a centre, and he is more likely to be concentrating on putting in extra tackles than in popping up outside Castaignede for a scintillating mid-field break. "If we want to compete with the English we have to make sure our defence keeps them out. That is our priority for the game: an aggressive first line of defence.

"The southern hemisphere teams have shown the way. It doesn't matter if you are a prop or a full-back, you're both expected to put in the same number of tackles in a match."