Castaignede drops big hint

The French centre who followed a legend is determined not to play simply for kicks
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The Independent Online
AS the dust settled on a depressingly negative French victory over England in Paris, two strikingly individual voices rose above the chorus of disapproval. Predictably, one of them belonged to the Wallaby wing David Campese, who mocked the match as a "boring turn-off" that had Australian television viewers switching channels by the thousand.

The second, rather more unexpected voice belonged to Thomas Castaignede, the brilliant young Five Nations' Championship debutant from Toulouse, who, on the eve of his 21st birthday, had won the game for France with a 79th-minute dropped goal. As the wine and congratulations washed over him in torrents, Castaignede, the man chosen to replace Philippe Sella in the French three-quarter line, took time out from the celebrations to express his own concerns over the events at Parc des Princes.

"The dropped goal gave me no pleasure," he said. "It was a gift to myself and the French nation, yes, but I would have preferred a try or even a couple of runs with the ball in my hands. It was all very frustrating; in certain types of game you have to accept these things and it was vital to us to beat England in Paris after such a long run of defeats, but I do not want to become known as Monsieur le Drop because it is not something I enjoy doing."

Campese will recognise a kindred spirit, another three-quarter touched with the divine spark of rugby adventure. Those comments might even persuade Australia's finest to tune into Saturday's confrontation at Murrayfield, when Castaignede and company take on Scotland in what may just be the match of the tournament.

Certainly, Castaignede will travel to Edinburgh with every intention of imposing his personality on the entire 80 minutes, rather than the last two. Against England, he touched the ball five times and kicked on all but one occasion. "Now that the English are out of the way, perhaps we can go out and play good rugby," he asserted.

Those who saw Toulouse set the inaugural European Cup alight with performances of spectacular enterprise against Swansea and Cardiff will appreciate how much Castaignede has to offer. Born and brought up in the south-west of France, he started playing rugby as a five-year-old and forged his skills at Mont-de-Marsan, the club responsible for the Boniface brothers and Benoit Dauga. His father Pierre, a fly-half, played with those legendary figures and made it his business to pass on his knowledge.

"As a boy, I played whenever the opportunity arose," said Castaignede, a chemistry student. "When France last beat England in the Five Nations I was 12 or 13 and I wasn't even aware of it. I had no real interest in watching because I prefer to play. Even now, I take each experience as it comes and live it to the full."

That refreshing philosophy is reflected in Castaignede's habit of giving away his representative shirts to close friends. He refused to swap jerseys with Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott at the Parc on Saturday because he had promised his to Patrice Beziat, paralysed and confined to a wheelchair after a rugby accident. "Shirts don't mean anything in themselves," he explained. "The experience is everything."

So how good is Castaignede? Or, more importantly, how good might he become in an age geared less to elusive playmakers weighing in at well under 12 stones than to rugged midfield powerhouses such as his long-time friend and hot-tempered partner Richard Dourthe?

Of the two, the current French hierarchy see Castaignede as the more influential and, under new coach Jean-Claude Skrela, are preparing him for a key role in the 1999 World Cup. Not only do they consider him an incisive runner and cultured distributor in the mould of Didier Codornieu, but also as a Sella-like talisman, a potential fixture in a back division overflowing with extraordinary attacking talents.

That potential will be tested to the full this weekend, especially now that blood-brother Dourthe has been banned for his violent excesses against England. Castaignede openly admits that he feels "stronger" when Dourthe is snarling and snorting alongside him. Suddenly, he must learn to play without him.

And at Murrayfield, too. Although France won there two years ago it remains a formidable psychological obstacle for them especially when the Scots are performing. The Tricolores need a more mature Thomas Castaignede when they put their Grand Slam ambitions on the line in Edinburgh.