Rugby Union: European Cup - England exile has Paris at his feet

Neglected Pool-Jones is primed to impress for French at Ravenhill today
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The Independent Online
ERNEST HEMINGWAY'S evocative celebration of Paris as a "moveable feast" clearly struck a chord with Richard Pool-Jones, who has been gorging himself silly on its splendours for three wonderfully stimulating years. Armed with an economics degree from Toulouse University and enough French to recognise his Truffauts from his truffles, England's most successful ex-pat rugby nut finds himself in the middle of a personal belle epoch. He runs a printing business with a multi-million Euro turnover, he is in the process of moving into a flat in the swanky seventh arrondissement - "Aim for the Eiffel Tower and you'll be in the right neighbourhood" - and, most impressively of all, he has cemented his place in the strongest club side on the planet, which is more than can be said for half-a-dozen Test-playing Tricolores.

And yet, the 29-year-old Stade Francais flanker remains unfulfilled. To the best of his knowledge, neither Clive Woodward nor anyone else from the England hierarchy has watched him play since he half killed himself in the national cause in Rotorua almost seven months ago. "Out of sight, out of mind," he says sadly. "It seems to me that no matter what I do here in France, however well I play, I'm seen as someone from a totally different world. I'd love to have to another chance with England; in all modesty, if I'm making the starting line-up here, I'm playing as near to Test level as makes no difference. For whatever reason, though, it's not happening for me on the England front."

It is, then, wholly understandable that he should see this afternoon's momentous European Cup semi-final with Ulster as an occasion shot through with personal significance. He does not for a moment expect any Twickenham big-wigs to be in attendance, but such is the excitement surrounding the match that every rugby man worth his salt will beg, borrow or steal a tape of proceedings at Ravenhill. The way Pool-Jones figures it, Belfast is the nearest he is likely to get to Woodward's line of vision this side of the World Cup.

On the face of it, his brief flurry of red rose activity last summer was hardly an unmitigated success; after winning his first cap among the romper-suited babes in arms humiliated 76-0 by Australia in Brisbane, he managed only a further 39 minutes against the New Zealand Maoris before being invalided off the tour. In reality, he was one of the few to emerge from that calamitous five-week balls-up with his reputation intact. If his defensive effort against the Wallabies was inspired - an impression underlined by the fact that during his 14-minute visit to the blood-bin in the first half, England went from 0-6 to 0-33 - his crimson-tinged assault on the Maoris was brave to the point of insanity. They did for him in the end, of course, but at least he went down fighting.

Professionalism was confidently expected to put an end to off-the-wall iconoclasts like Pool-Jones, whose rugby wanderings have taken him from England Under-18s and the Varsity Match to the blood-soaked bull ring of Stade Francais' Jean Bouin Stadium, via Biarritz, where he enjoyed the immeasurable privilege of playing in Serge Blanco's last match, and Wasps, where he spent a dissolute few months nursing a knackered knee.

Even now, embroiled as he is in the most competitive playing environment anywhere in the northern hemisphere, he manages to mix sport and business to the satisfaction of all concerned. What is more, he still gets out in the evening. "Only two or three times a week, mind you, but you can't live like a monk in Paris, can you?" he points out, entirely reasonably. "I don't suppose professional players will get the opportunity to live this sort of life four or five years from now, but I find it manageable.

"I'm not a nine-to-five rugby sort and I don't suppose I ever will be; the Stade Francais squad often trains at 10.30 in the morning and that gives me enough time to fit in a business meeting beforehand. The fact that the club is so successful - we've had crowds of 20,000 this season - and that I'm out there playing has definitely opened a few doors in the business world. I'm looking to bring a few club-mates into the company to help all the inter-connections continue once I stop playing."

Which will not be for some considerable time yet; Pool-Jones, who lost two complete seasons to injury and to this day has played only 21 French league games in five years, finds the Stade Francais buzz gloriously addictive.

Bankrolled by the Parisian radio mogul Max Guazzini and positively smothered with Test-class talent, the club is among the sexiest sporting attractions anywhere in France - no mean achievement for a rugby outfit in the land of the football world champions. "It is," agrees Pool-Jones, "an astonishing set-up. Sebastien Viars [the former France wing] said recently that it's harder to get picked by Stade Francais than it is by France and, without being funny, I think he's dead right.

"Look at last weekend, for instance. We fielded what amounted to a second team at Castres - most of us were resting up for Ulster - and it included Marc Lievremont, a Grand Slam flanker last season, and the whole Simon- Moscato-Gimbert front row that everyone assumed was our number one unit at the start of the European Cup tournament. Franck Comba, another recent Test player, can't get in at centre because Cliff Mytton is playing better rugby than anyone. That's the measure of the standard here. We even win away from home in the French championship, which is not really the traditional way of going about things in this country.

"Still, all that will mean nothing if we get it wrong in Belfast. If we were playing a top English side with a cup final place at stake, we could not conceivably be any more serious than we are about this game. Sure, I'd have loved to have mixed it with the English in this year's tournament; their boycott has probably cost me personally in that it denied me the opportunity of playing in the shop window against Neil Back or Richard Hill. But Stade Francais are in the tournament and the Cup is there to be won. You're either European champions or you're not. In five years' time, who will remember the boycott?"

Not for the first time, Pool-Jones will perform a fistful of roles this afternoon, acting not merely as open-side flanker but as go-between, negotiator, translator and apologist for his club-mates as they attempt to deal with a fired-up band of ultra-physical Ulstermen, a frenzied atmosphere and a referee in the authoritarian shape of Scotland's own Jim Fleming.

"Our discipline is the big factor, because we certainly have the skills to win this match," he says. "The French are generally at a disadvantage in that they rarely, if ever, have the luxury of one of their own officials in a cross-border fixture. And let's be honest: British referees see French club rugby in a very poor light and understandably so. It can still be very violent, especially in the sticks. I think I'll be fairly busy out there on the pitch, one way or another."

Whether Pool-Jones executes his many responsibilities with sufficient pizzazz to re-awaken Woodward's dormant interest is a seriously moot point. Life has its little consolations, though. As Hemingway said: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you."