A little madness to be free

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: Saint-Andre has introduced discipline and self-cont rol into his team while Irish face an unfancied Scotland Ian Borthwick talks to a refreshingly candid French captain leading the charge for today's Twickenham match
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The Independent Online
At first glance, Philippe Saint-Andre might appear the most unlikely choice as captain of France. He has no experience of captaining his club, he does not come equipped with that vital linguistic ingredient, the South-West accent synonymous with French rugby, and in a land where beauty is all he resembles more a tradesman than a virtuoso on the field of play.

Some might even say he is merely captain by default after being appointed in February last year when Olivier Roumat was dropped in the wake of the defeat against England, and this after seeing the captaincy change hands in the space of two years from Marc Cecillon, to Philippe Sella, then Jean-Francois Tordo.

But in less than 12 months, the bustling winger from Montferrand has not only assumed the mantle of captaincy with nonchalant ease, leading the Tricolores to notable victories in New Zealand, he has also infused the French XV with his own personality, and his own particular brand of joie de vivre - the perfect foil to the austerity and rigorousness of the coach, Pierre Berbizier. With a total of 40 caps behind him, Saint-Andre, 27, has undoubtedly been for some time one of the dominant personalities inthe current French XV. On the field he is like a jack-in-the-box, always expressive. Off it, his green eyes have a gleam of mischief and his laugh - a kind of maniacal cackle - is the barometer of good humour in his team.

"I love to laugh, I love to live life to the full. These are essential values in the sport of rugby which we must try and preserve," he says. "It's important to know how to live, and this team can make people laugh; we can thrill them, but we also know when it is time to take things seriously."

When he first played for France, against Romania in 1990, he had something of a reputation as a bon vivant, always ready for a night on the tiles. Nowadays though, he has bowed to the exigencies of modern sport. "Before, I used to just play for the enjoyment, but I have a much more serious approach now. If I were really the same roisterer as I used to be, I would be continually carrying injuries. Oh, I still like to eat red meat, and to drink good beer. But where in the past I would have drunk a barrel of it, these days I content myself with un demi.''

Living in the hamlet of Chateaugay near the gloomy central French city of Clermont-Ferrand, where he runs a publicity company, and an Irish bar called "Le Lutetia", Saint-Andre often fantasises about becoming the kind of classical wing threequarter who illuminated the rugby of his youth. "You know, the upturned collar, the bust erect, and socks always neatly an inch or so below the knee." Nature, however, decided otherwise as, with his great, bulging calf muscles, Saint-Andre's socks are usually screwedaround his ankles, and with his busy, robust style of running, he looks slower and more ungainly than he really is.

"I know I'm not very aesthetic. I run more like a wild boar than some feline creature," he muses. "They say I don't have much finesse and style. But I just play in a way that uses my qualities most efficiently. My game is based on my ability to bounce off tackles, to remain on my feet and keep the ball alive. Of course, a winger's role is also as a finisher, but if you can keep the ball available, avoid being pushed into touch, it's just as important for the support play."

As for his turn of speed, there was some surprise recently at a French squad session when the "unaesthetic" captain turned in the best sprint times over 20, 30, 50 and 100 metres.

Today is the third time Saint-Andre has played England at Twickenham, and although he has yet to post a victory, he has already had the personal satisfaction of scoring three tries in two games on the hallowed turf: two in 1993, and the other, a 100-metre effort in the 1991 Grand Slam decider. A try which originated behind the goal-line with Berbizier and Blanco, was carried on by Lafond and Sella, then Camberabero, whose inspired centre-kick found Saint-Andre steaming up the middle.

It was labelled the "try of the century", and remained so until 3 July last year when at Eden Park, Auckland, Saint-Andre himself launched what he so aptly called "the counter-attack from the end of the world". He picked up the ball deep in his own 22, looked up to see four All Black jerseys bearing down on him, and made a split-second decision. "I can only kick about as far as a sparrow, so the only thing to do was to run the ball."

The result is now part of rugby history - a new "try of the century" which saw the blue jerseys sweep past the New Zealand defence, the ball going through eight pairs of hands before Jean-Luc Sadourny dived over to score, with his captain breathing hard on his shoulder.

"The tour to New Zealand has essentially given us confidence in ourselves," Saint-Andre said. "We now know that if we put in the work we can compete with any country in the world. Winning a series in South Africa and a series in New Zealand has cemented a state of mind, a real team spirit, and a degree of experience which will be invaluable in the World Cup. It just remains for us to bring it all together against England."

One of the major advances made by the French in Saint-Andre's hands has been their discipline, and the degree of self-control. "I have played and lost too many games for France which we ought to have won. Games where we would score three tries, but the opposition would kick eight penalty goals. If it wasn't our players confusing a maul with an Olympic swimming pool and diving all over the place, there would always some stupid act, a punch here, a jersey pulled there, or someone talking back to the ref. So we decided to take some action, and to stop being the Father Christmas of world rugby, giving away penalties left and right. Within the team itself we now have our own rules, to cut down our mistakes, and to respect the opposition and the referee."

This fundamental change has, he says, involved a change in mentality, an attempt to retain the best aspects of the French game while grafting on discipline and consistency. "It is not at all easy. The mentalities are not the same. In England when a cop blows his whistle, everybody stops. But in France when a "flic'' blows his whistle, everybody makes a run for it, scattering in all different directions."

Thanks in part to Saint-Andre, to his buoyancy and eternal good humour, the change has been painless. Today's French team are better-armed than ever to stop their six-year losing sequence against England. "We have had to change our culture, but individually and collectively we can now maintain our discipline,'' he says. "But at the same time we have not completely lost our identity. We still have our strength - that kind of madness, the passing game.''