Berbizier tempers the spirit

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: The holders are the underdogs as they seek their first victory at the Parc des Princes for 20 years Steve Bale meets the coach with a flair for producing miracles
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Unusually - one might say unprecedentedly - for a coach of France, Pierre Berbizier is close to a state of grace, his critics silenced, an entire rugby nation more or less united behind its team as they approach the World Cup. By French standards, this is a sporting miracle.

But then Berbizier is from near Lourdes - Lannemazan is 35 miles to the east on the road that follows the Pyrenean foothills from Biarritz until swinging north-east towards Toulouse - and has been hoping, if not praying, for this moment all his rugby life. France have won Test series in South Africa and New Zealand in the past 18 months and thus have proved they have what it takes to win the World Cup itself.

Or so it seems. That is four months away and first there is the Five Nations' Championship. As Berbizier and his players were rudely reminded last year, momentous results can be swiftly put into a bleak perspective. France won in South Africa, then won ahome Test against Australia, then lost to Wales and England in the championship.

Hence Berbizier's apprehension, evident the moment he fixes you with his gimlet eye, about this afternoon's Five Nations opener against Wales in Paris. He knows France ought to win but frets that too much is being made too soon of the England match that follows. He knows that his state of grace will become something else entirely - a hell of a state, perhaps - if Wales should have the temerity to win at Parc des Princes for the first time in 20 years.

Hence, too, his words of warning. "England are still the reference point of Europe," he said. "They are at the standard we have come to expect of them and we are looking forward with impatience to Twickenham, and knowing at exactly what level the French team is.

"But be careful. Every year people say this is the vital match, but it is the magic of the championship that each year something unpredictable happens. If you rest everything just on that one match, you forget that the others - and for us, especially this match against the Welsh - are just as important."

This is Berbizier the pragmatist, a man for whom the inculcation into his team of such non-French virtues as realism and discipline has been as important as the rediscovery of French flair. As the coach sees it, you cannot have one without the other.

So when he sends his teams out, his message is less about attacking, instinctive rugby than the more mundane attributes that make it possible. "I tell them they must have a respect of the basics and the fundamentals, knowing that French flair can expressitself only after we have respected the fundamentals and never before, and that French players have often had a tendency to forget that or to reverse the chronology. For a French player to win, it is 90 per cent of work and 10 per cent of French flair."

It is Berbizier's triumph that he has inspired his players to produce the 90 per cent and so add the 10 per cent. This was why France won not one but two Tests in New Zealand, squeezing the All Blacks dry to win comfortably in Christchurch and then putting in a herculean defensive effort before breaking free at the death to score the so-called "try from the end of the world" (so called by Philippe Saint-Andre, the captain) to win again in Auckland.

Jean-Luc Sadourny's was one of the historically great tries but Berbizier cannot tell what it portends, if anything. France were increasingly impressive in beating Canada in Besancon last month but so they were in 1993 when they followed their South African tour by beating Australia in Bordeaux. France lost to them in Paris a week later and ended on a humble 50 per cent in the championship.

"It is only during the Five Nations that we will see whether we have changed, whether we have improved, because we are in the same situation now as we were after our tour to South Africa, and last year we saw we were unable to repeat our performance at the top level," Berbizier said.

"What happened in New Zealand happened after six weeks' work but there was a special French spirit of Auckland and I am just counting on the intelligence of my players not to be carried away and instead to adapt their game between what is desirable and what is possible."

Thus Berbizier encapsulates the eternal French dilemma, the impossibility of consistently blending the romantic and realist strands of their rugby. He lived with it right through his occasionally controversial career as a player and has in the three years since he succeeded the disgraced Daniel Dubroca as coach. Now and then his hold on the job, as it sometimes was when he was France's scrum-half, has been agonisingly tenuous.

If anything prepared him for the vicissitudes to which he is now subject it was these very playing days. Right from the start he was a bone of contention. Originally a full-back or centre with the illustrious Lourdes club, he turned to scrum-half in 1981

and, to the consternation of an outraged public, was capped almost immediately to the exclusion of the popular Jerome Gallion.

The 56 appearances that ensued made Berbizier the most capped French scrum-half. But even though his first four coincided with a Grand Slam - only France's third - he was then in and out, alternating with the short-lived Jean-Pierre Elissalde and Gerald Martinez, and finally Gallion before at last making the place his own in 1985, by which time he had long since moved north to Agen.

From then until 1989, Berbizier's international career was interrupted only by a broken arm. His last cap came in the Grand Slam decider against England at Twickenham in 1991, at which point he was dropped for good at the age of 33. The French public were as scandalised by his omission from the '91 World Cup as they had been by Gallion's 10 years earlier.

Berbizier had lost the captaincy in the wake of the 1989 tour to New Zealand, during which he and other insubordinate senior players had gone in delegation to demand of Jacques Fouroux more emphasis on skill and less on brute force. Five months later thecoach exacted his revenge by excluding Berbizier from the second Test against Australia.

Berbizier himself became coach when Dubroca resigned after accosting and haranguing the referee after France's defeat by England in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final at Parc des Princes. Since then Berbizier's role in giving French rugby coherence and confidence is unquestioned.

Moreover he is approachable, eager to please, and from the start has been anxious - maybe even desperate - to establish lines of communication with the anglophone world which French rugby men have too often seen to be conspiring against them. He is a PR dream, appropriate to employment by the French ministry of education on full-time secondment to the French rugby federation. A genuinely nice guy.

That said, coming from the deep, deep south of France's great rugby region, Berbizier somehow personifies the paradoxes of the Gallic game with a cryptic aspect and a typically dense south-west accent far removed from the French we attempted to learn at school.

But in anyone's language he has learned the hard way - as scrum-half, captain and coach - to take nothing for granted; Wales beat France last season so France cannot afford to think about England this season until they have played Wales today. "Listen,"

he said, "we French are used to the cycle of victory and defeat. Whatever may have happened in New Zealand, we need this tournament to see exactly where we are in that cycle."

The criticism that has come when the cycle brings defeat - and despair, as when France had two forwards sent off against England in his first match as coach in 1992 - has made a fatalist of Pierre Berbizier. "When I was a player I used to be lucky enoughto be used to the same regime," he said sardonically.

"So I'm not surprised by the obstacles that have presented themselves. I try to bounce back even further each time by surmounting all those obstacles. I'm still here, but I know that one day a last obstacle will be fatal for me.

"The French public want their team not only to win but to ensure the spectacle. Everyone knows this is not always possible but it is something that you and your players have to be aware of: not only that they are there to be efficient, but also to give the public the right to dream."