Rugby: The heavy duty import

Penaud is shifting the accent at Saracens.
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The Independent Online
WHEN Saracens parted company with Michael Lynagh, the world's leading points scorer, and Philippe Sella, the world's most capped player, at the end of a memorable season, the other clubs might have been tempted to chip in for a farewell party. On the basis that your enemy's friends are also your enemies, they would have been glad to see the back of the Australian and the Frenchman.

Saracens came within a couple of points of a league and cup double, with Lynagh, in particular, a pivotal figure. A prolific scorer and master tactician he was voted the club's player of the year. How could Saracens follow that? Pretty damned smartly, by the looks of it.

While Lynagh was giving a virtuoso performance in the Tetley's Bitter Cup final his successor, Alain Penaud, was at Twickenham as a guest of the club. It was a successful act of courtship and, with Penaud on the rebound from Brive, the timing was perfect. "We looked at a lot of stand- offs but he was always our No 1 choice," Mark Evans, the director of rugby, said. "We are very, very pleased to get him. He's aggressive and poses a running threat. I have always been a big fan."

So has the Saracens player-coach Francois Pienaar who was on the receiving end in 1993 when France won a Test series in South Africa, Penaud scoring a decisive drop goal in an 18-17 clincher in Johannesburg. There was a feeling of deja vu later the same season when Penaud did the same thing to the then world champions Australia in Bordeaux. Penaud's opposite number at stand-off was Lynagh. In style and personality, the two are poles apart.

What Lynagh brought to Saracens was a cool head, tremendous experience and a goal-kicking pedigree bar none. Penaud's occupancy at No 10 could be even greater. He scored two tries in a friendly against Llanelli and got another in his first match in the Premiership, Saracens' comprehensive defeat of Northampton at Watford on Sunday. At 29 Penaud, who could pass as a back-row forward, has a more physical presence. Whereas Lynagh was content to kick or get his line moving, Penaud is prepared to take defences on. "I admired Michael, he was the best No 10 in the world but maybe I can add something new," he said. On the evidence so far, Le Penaud is mightier than the sword.

"He's a complete contrast to Lynagh," Andy Lee, the Saracens understudy stand-off, said. "Alain doesn't kick as often and relishes physical contact. He loves to have a pop at people."

Until a fall-out with the Brive coach Pierre Montlaur, Penaud was a one-club man. "We were having verbal fights and the situation was getting worse and worse," Penaud said. Before the quarter-final of the European Cup, Penaud complained of an injury. "In a newspaper the coach said my injury wasn't real. It was crazy. I don't know why he did it."

For the final against Bath, which Brive lost 19-18, Penaud was switched to full-back. He was among eight players who left at the end of the season. "It was very difficult. I was born in Brive and had been at the club for 13 years. Nobody in France thought I would ever leave."

Penaud was wanted by Bath, Cardiff (whom he played against yesterday) and Saracens. The Sella connection helped the London club. After meeting Nigel Wray, the owner, and Pienaar, Penaud plumped for Saracens and an apartment in St Albans. "Our first contact was very nice. Brive is a small town and I wanted a club that had a good friendly, family atmosphere, not one where everybody was doing their own thing. I needed a place where I could gain confidence quickly, to play my best rugby. I didn't have that feeling with Brive last year. When I told them I was leaving they said it was a very good decision." Brive, European champions in 1997, signed Gregor Townsend from Northampton to replace him.

Two weeks ago, Penaud returned home and watched Brive from the stands. "For the first time I knew in my heart that I had made the right decision. It was a poor game. Results are important but it's how you get them that matters. I'm sure we can play very good rugby at Saracens. There are a lot of really good players here. The main difference is that in France we spoke a lot about the game, about movement, but we were not allowed to do it on the field. During the match there would be fighting between the forwards but not much movement. Here we speak about the game and then try to produce it on the field.

"The interesting thing is that when English sides play against the French they are never confident enough to play a total game. They only kick. Yet when English clubs play against each other they play rugby. What they don't understand is that the French don't like playing against a side that wants to run. Rugby in England is improving. Maybe it's more professional."

Penaud, who has sold his house in Brive, won the last of his 30 caps in 1997 and the odds are against him winning any more. "I would love to play in the World Cup but they don't want players in England. The important thing is for me to improve my game with Saracens. I think they'll help me to find my best rugby."

To achieve this, Saracens should open a French cafe in St Albans where Penaud lives with his wife Vanessa and their son Damian, who will be two later this month, and find them a babysitter and a mobile phone. "The first thing I noticed is that it is far more expensive here than at home. The rhythm of life is different. We miss meeting our friends for coffee every day at 1.00pm and going to the restaurant and the cinema. It's especially difficult for my wife who speaks no English. She has many problems. It's easier for me. I train, eat, rest and train. I have 30 team-mates and on Sunday 9,000 friends."

A trip to the West End might help (although not to see Les Miserables) and they need to make contact with a friend, Laurent Cabannes, who plays for Richmond. The trouble is Penaud has lost his mobile which contained Cabannes' number.

Still, at the training ground at Southgate, Penaud feels at home. He's eating French onion soup with French bread and, after another hard session and a Pienaar, he has a bon appetit.