Rugby Union: Carbonneau moves into boss class

Alex Hayes hears that France are being led firmly towards history
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The Independent Online
ANY FEARS that the French might start resting on their laurels and believing in their own publicity were laid to rest in Dublin three weeks ago. Having struggled with the stormy Irish forwards and the elements for an hour, the Tricolores dug deep, stayed calm, and somehow managed to win. Of greater concern to their opponents than the result itself, though, will be the new-found resilience of this French side.

While past teams might have folded at Lansdowne Road that day, the Class of '99 are different. Well-orchestrated, more disciplined, yet full of flair, Jean-Claude Skrela's men are chasing a place in history on two fronts - becoming the first side to win three successive Grand Slams and the first team from the northern hemisphere to lift the World Cup. At the heart of all this is Philippe Carbonneau, the scrum-half whose form over the last two years epitomises the French transformation.

Carbonneau's rise has been surprisingly staggered. "When I broke into the Toulouse first team, Skrela [the then coach] decided to play me at scrum-half," he said. "After he left, though, I was moved to the centre for four seasons. It was not a problem, until Skrela decided to select me at scrum-half for the national team. In the end, I simply had to leave Toulouse for Brive, so I could play in my favoured position."

Carbonneau is more than willing to credit the national coach with his transition from club centre to international scrum-half. "He gave me the chance and then stuck with me, which really gives you confidence," he said. "And on the pitch, he gives every player the freedom to express himself. He tells us what the game plan is in theory, and we apply that on the field. We are carrying the message."

That, as Dewi Morris, the former England and Lions scrum-half, points out, is something Carbonneau is doing rather well at the moment. "He's a charismatic, bossy type of player," Morris said. "He may not be the greatest passer or kicker, but he reads situations well. He can play flat to give his forwards options, or break down the blind-side to get behind defenders. He's the engine, he makes them tick."

He is also not short of courage. "I will never forget his tackle on David Rees last year at the Stade de France," Morris said. "Here was one of the smallest guys around lifting a winger out of the park."

All of which brings to mind one of Carbonneau's illustrious predecessors, Pierre Berbizier. Carbonneau is too modest and astute to accept the comparison though he acknowledges it exists. "I guess we have a similar character, as we both like to talk a lot on the pitch. But I always think it is dangerous to pit yourself against predecessors."

Not least because the demands of the modern game have changed dramatically. "Preparation for a match is very intensive these days. The game is so fast and physically demanding, that you have to be at the peak of fitness. On a personal level, as a scrum-half, I feel we have more responsibilities than ever. Because everything starts with us, we need awareness and vision. It is very much the pivotal role, along with the Nos 8 and 10."

And his combination at half-back with Thomas Castaignede is undoubtedly the key to France's recent - and future - achievements. "I am not the type to get too involved, so I don't really mind who I am playing alongside. Having said that, Thomas and I function well together because we played at centre for Toulouse. I guess there is more affinity between us."

All eyes are now turned to Saturday's match against Wales, though Carbonneau does not expect a repeat of last season's 51-0 demolition. "All the northern hemisphere teams are playing so well at the moment, so this will be a serious test. The game against Ireland could have gone either way, and we don't want to be in that situation again. I respect Robert Howley [his Welsh counterpart] a lot. He kicks well, has good vision and is very quick. It should be a great duel," he said.

Morris, however, is less optimistic for the Welshman. "The French pack is so solid that it gives the half-backs the perfect platform to attack. The only way for Robert to compete, really, is to rattle him. If I was playing against him, I would be attempting to put him off and niggle him, because he definitely has a short fuse."

Certainly, Carbonneau appeared to lose his cool on the pitch when Brive played Pontypridd in the European Cup last season. And he was also accused of involvement in a brawl at a bar afterwards. "I don't even want to talk about that," he said sharply. "When I see some of the stuff that was reported, it drives me mad."

Carbonneau says he has now, like the French team, found an inner discipline which allows him to focus purely on playing. We shall find out, for it will be tested to the limit this year, if the team of which he is the heart-beat are to take their exalted place in rugby history.