Califano the cornerstone of French aspirations

FIVE NATIONS COUNTDOWN: Scotland's pack is Saturday's target for tight-head from Toulouse.
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For most of us mere mortals the mystery of what goes on in the depths of a scrum will always remain impenetrable. The code of silence of the front row brotherhood is such that, even if one of them does decide to reveal a few secrets, you are still never sure of getting the full story.

Take the recent France-England game, where one of the most remarkable features in 80 minutes of otherwise dour rugby was the performances of the respective scrums, and the way the French pack, looking decidedly shaky in the first half, gradually reversed the roles and ended up totally dominating.

According to Christian Califano, the French tight-head, there are two very good reasons for this. Firstly, the whole left flank of the French scrum was destabilised by Michel Perie's boots. The superstitious loose- head from Toulon, playing in his first international, had taken the field in his favourite old boots, which although perfectly adequate for training, or playing in the French championship, failed to withstand the added pressure from two international packs. On several occasions he found himself propping in his socks, and the English scrum hammered home the advantage.

At half-time it was all change. While Perie rushed to put on a new pair of boots, the French captain, Philippe Saint-Andre, harangued his pack, calling for a renewed effort. "He told us he thought we were starting to get the upper hand, and we suddenly started to believe in ourselves. We were sick of being on the receiving end, so we decided it was our turn to take control," Califano said.

The French, with the dynamic Califano spearheading the set scrums, took the game to England. Their added stability and increasing assurance gradually brought the extra ounce of control for the half-backs to dictate play and pull off France's first win against England in Paris since 1988.

"The most important thing is to react collectively," said Califano, who at 23 is now considered one of the best props in world rugby. Tight- head for France, he plays loose-head for Toulouse and has followed the fortunes of Jason Leonard with the eye of a connoisseur. "He is a very, very good prop, but I don't think he is enjoying himself much at tight- head."

Califano's rise started more by accident than design. He was a last-minute choice for the French tour of New Zealand in 1994, called in to replace his boyhood mate and best friend, Marc de Rougemont, who suffered a fractured jaw in a club semi-final. Although only 21 at the time, Califano's all- round skills, his powerful scrummaging technique and his ability to play the game at pace quickly found favour with Pierre Berbizier, then the coach, and the young prop won his first two caps in the historic 2-0 series victory over the All Blacks.

Perhaps even more remarkable was Califano's transformation from an overweight, unruly and indisciplined player to a more compact, mobile one who had totally mastered his fiery temperament. Having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in Toulon, Califano spent much of his youth on the borderline of delinquency, and on the field he and De Rougemont had acquired an unsavoury reputation for violence.

"I suppose you could say I was pretty turbulent when I was younger. It's true I had a reputation, and on the field and off it I used to behave like a little bull." The influence of Berbizier, and others in Toulouse, cured him of these defects and Califano is now as focused and controlled as any international prop. "They made me understand there are other means of gaining respect on the field," he said.

Blessed with great natural strength, and clearly skilful, Califano won caps at schools and junior level before being head-hunted by Toulouse in 1991. His first real appearance on the national stage came in October 1992 when, as a 19st 9lb 20-year-old, he had an outstanding game for the Midi-Pyrenees XV against the touring Springboks, not only taking on the veteran Johann Styger in the front row, but producing several stunning breaks with the ball in hand.

At only 5ft 10in, however, Califano was clearly overweight, and if this game was proof of his promise, his failure to gain selection for the Mediterranean Games in June 1993 made him realise it was time to change. "All my mates were chosen to play for France so I felt left out. At the time I didn't really pay much attention to my lifestyle or what I ate or drank, but I suddenly realised that if I wanted to go any further in the game, I had to do something about it."

So he started the 1993-94 season by training "seriously", working out, putting in the hours of weightlifting and gym work. Result: he lost over two and a half stones, is now stable at his playing weight of 17st and, with his 18th cap this Saturday against Scotland, clearly looks like signing a long lease on the No 3 jersey in the French scrum.