Ntamack ready to bring joy

Paul Trow meets a Frenchman out to end Cardiff's European Cup hopes
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The Independent Online
EMILE N'TAMACK could be forgiven for feeling that his rugby career is all downhill from now on. After all, when you have had the dubious honour of marking Jonah Lomu in four of your 15 internationals and come out on top three times, what else is there for a wing to prove?

However, the 25-year-old physical education student will have a score to settle with the Arms Park, scene of his international debut two years ago, when he captains Toulouse in the inaugural Heineken European Cup final against Cardiff today.

This is his first appearance in the Principality since Wales put paid to their Gallic visitors 24-15 and went on to become Five Nations' champions. "I really enjoyed it even though France lost,'' he said. "A first cap is very important in the life of a rugby player even though it was not a good game - hopefully there will be other chances to win in Cardiff.''

It will be an upset if Toulouse, French champions for the last two seasons, fail to beat Cardiff. And when, all being well, N'tamack returns to Cardiff for France's final Championship game of the season, against Wales on 16 March, he will find himself again saddled with the tag of favourite.

"Playing for France is different to Toulouse," he said. "For France I am playing with guys who I don't know well whereas with Toulouse I am playing with my friends. We have only one style, the way we played in the semi-final last weekend against Swansea [they romped home 30-3]. We just hope the weather lets us play the same way against Cardiff.''

That joie de vivre may express itself today, but on Saturday week a much darker prospect awaits in Paris - a Five Nations' opener against England that could decide the Championship.

After seven successive defeats, France finally beat England 19-9 in the third-place play-off at last summer's World Cup. N'tamack, who had not played in any of those defeats, applied the coup de grace with a late try, his seventh as an international.

"When you are third in the world and playing at home you are expected to win,'' he said. "If we want to remain third we must beat England, but it will be difficult. They want revenge and we are not taking their poor games against South Africa and Western Samoa too seriously. It will be a tough game.''

Born and raised in Lyons by his Cameroonian father and French mother, N'tamack took up rugby along with soccer, tennis and athletics as a schoolboy. "I didn't play rugby at school but by the time I was a teenager it was definitely the game for me.''

He is often spoken of as the new Serge Blanco - talk he wishes to hush. "Serge was a great player and I am only beginning my career. I think it is not a good comparison.'' To a large extent N'tamack is cushioned from the professional revolution because he will not graduate from Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse until the summer, but he does not look forward to full-time rugby with enthusiasm. "Our federation is waiting to see what happens elsewhere before deciding what to do, but a lot of the players want to have a job as well as being paid to play rugby even if it means less money in the short term.''

There is an argument that if you have to line up against Lomu then you deserve every franc you can get. But this cheerful man, who believes that a Super League is the only way forward for Europe's leading clubs, is not really a masochist. When asked whether he hoped to face a player of Lomu's size in the championship, his reply spoke volumes: "I sure hope not.''

Cardiff: M Rayer; S Ford, M Hall, M Ring, S Hill; A Davies, A Moore; A Lewis, J Humphreys, L Mustoe, J Wakeford, D Jones, E Lewis, O Williams, H Taylor (capt). Replacements: N Walker, J Davies, A Booth, H Stone, K Stewart, M Griffiths, P Young.

Toulouse: S Ougier; E N'Tamack (capt), P Carbonneau, T Castaignede, D Berty; C Deylaud, J Cazalbou; C Califano, P Soula, C Portolan, H Miorin, G Belot, D Lacroix, H Manent, S Dispagne. Replacements: O Carbonneau, E Artiguste, U Mola, N Bacque, R Castel, P Lasserre, C Guiter.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland).