Rugby Union: `Defective' Carbonneau leads Brive's charge

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If there was a prize for the most unlikely captain in the European Cup, Brive's Philippe Carbonneau would win it hands down. With his rustic gait and heavy beard, which often goes unshaven, there is nothing particularly elegant or innovative about him.

He was scarcely even a regular scrum-half before he came to Brive after winning the first European Cup in 1996 with Toulouse. With Jerome Cazalbou being in the No 9 jersey at Stade Toulousain at the time, Carbonneau played a nomad utility role, at full-back and wing, but mostly centre. Sharp on his feet, his breaks from the base of the scrum make him a danger for any defence but when he first arrived at Brive two years ago, some of his scrum-half skills were so under-developed that Nick Farr-Jones, then the technical adviser to the club, quickly stepped him in to take him through some basic drills.

Carbonneau is another of the success stories in the Brive side, and while being a gamble by coach Laurent Seigne, the decision to appoint him captain has paid off for the defending Heineken Cup champions.

Despite being timid off the field, Carbonneau had a reputation as an impulsive, hot-headed customer on it, and many critics used to marvel that a player who appeared to have so little self-discipline could ever play rugby at the national level, let alone represent France, which he has done 13 times.

"I know I have got a lot of defects. That's perhaps why I have been made captain," he acknowledged. "I also know I have a tendency to talk back to the referee. But I am trying hard to correct myself. I know I have to be calmer on the field of play."

Carbonneau's theatrical arm-waving and continuous bickering with match officials makes him one of the best "referees" in the game but in Bordeaux today he will become the only player to have played in all three European Cup finals.

Asked whether the quality of European Cup rugby has developed over the past three seasons, he acknowledges that the arrival of the English clubs in 1997 definitely had an impact. "I don't think the quality of European Cup rugby has necessarily improved. The quality of all rugby has improved, and the game now demands far more precision and self-sacrifice from the players," he said.

He believes this season's campaign has been the toughest. Not just because of the quality of the opposition - namely Bath, Wasps and Toulouse all of whom they have beaten - but also because of the bizarre events which followed their first meeting with Pontypridd, and the difficult series of matches which ensued.

Carbonneau was in the front line in the infamous post-match brawl and he, Christopher Lamaison and David Venditti were forced to sit out the following week's match in Bath.

As the judicial investigation continues, the exact sequence of events has yet to be elucidated. From the video of the match, however, one thing became clear: Carbonneau was guilty of butting an opponent, an act he does not deny. The French selectors took a dim view of it, and punished him with exclusion him from the autumn Tests. Last Monday, however, he was reinstated against England next Saturday.

As for today's attempt at a record third European Cup title he said: "If we win this one, we will really have deserved it. A lot of people in French rugby have done all they could to make it difficult for us. It has been an up-hill battle all the way."

- Ian Borthwick