Frenchman on the edge of history

David Llewellyn reports on Jerome Riondet's intrusion into a very English institution and (below) on Stephen Cottrell, the New Zealander leading the case for Cambridge
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The Independent Online
The problem with Jerome Riondet is the very thing that makes him an exciting history-maker today - his Gallic flair. The Oxford University centre Riondet is the first Frenchman to take part in the 124-year-old fixture and as such is an unknown quantity.

People who have come across him have described Riondet variously as "a character", "mad" and "very talented". It is safe to assume he is all these things, which allied to his obvious ball skill - he has played in a fistful of fixtures for France A - makes him unpredictable and therefore a danger to the Light Blues.

Certainly his coach Lyn Evans is in no doubt. "He is a talented centre who can make breaks," Evans said. "A very penetrative player, he has brought Gallic flair to the side, but we have to contain it at times because our players don't always react to his little antics. I have to balance it with some pragmatism anglais."

The man himself acknowledges the fault, if that is what it is, and says: "Sometimes I try to play too much with the ball, or send a daring pass from behind our line."

Language is less of a snag than might be expected. "The only problem I experience now," explains Riondet, "is in defence when they are calling out 'My man' or 'Your man'. And I do tend to be," a pause, a verbal Gallic shrug almost, "enthusiastic in certain situations and I start shouting in French. But really it is no barrier now."

Riondet arrived in England 18 months ago and studied English in London before going up to Oxford, armed with a degree in journalism from the Sorbonne in his beloved Paris. Grenoble-born Riondet waxes lyrical about the French capital. "I love impressionism and I love Paris. I love all the museums in Paris. It is a wonderful city, except at the moment because everyone is on strike."

But if it is that good, why come to Oxford to study for a diploma in Social Administration at Mansfield College? "In Oxford it is quiet. It is like a small city in the south of France. You know everybody, you are five minutes from everywhere and for me to be a graduate from Oxford University will be amazing for me.

"I would like to stay on for an extra year to study international relations and then I would like to become a foreign correspondent in London or maybe South America."

As far as making history goes Riondet finds the whole concept of the Varsity match and its traditions fairly difficult to grasp. "I have been reading the Varsity story," explains Riondet, who hopes to be playing for Harlequins early in the new year, "and I am just beginning to realise that this is a very big event for England.

"There is no equivalent university game in France or the world. In France the big thing is to play at the Parc des Princes, but they never stage a university match there.

"This is going to be a big game for me but I think the thing that is important is not playing in the match but to get my degree from Oxford. Then maybe later, if I stay in England I will realise that people will know me because I got my Blue as the first Frenchman to play in the Varsity."