Rugby Union / Five Nations' Countdown: Reformed Roumat poised to make mark: The French captain has put bad days behind him. Ian Borthwick reports from Paris

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The Independent Online
THEY may have discovered him more by accident than by design but in Olivier Roumat the French have stumbled on a new captain determined to take them to the top. His conversation is littered with terms like 'winner' and 'mentalite de vainqueur', and he makes no bones about his aim for the Five Nations' Championship, which kicks off against the Irish at the Parc des Princes on Saturday. 'We're here to win it,' he says. 'We are sportsmen aren't we? So we're on the field for only one thing: winning.'

Roumat, a qualified surveyor from Dax in south-west France agrees, however, that the French XV, if they are to progress in 1994 have to lift their game compared to last season. 'We need to increase the volume of our play,' he said. 'Last year we got to a certain level, but we need to go beyond that, at the same time retaining all the lessons of the past 12 months. I believe we can beat any other team in the world; we are certainly capable of it but we need to improve the quality of our attacking game.'

In a typically Gallic way his order of priorities in rugby, as in life, is dependent on the degree of passion involved. 'Life is there to be seized with both hands,' he said. 'What interests me is experiencing everything I can experience on the emotional level. And God knows the emotions I have already felt through rugby are enormous.'

So it's just a matter of passion? 'Yes, you can call it passion. But for me it is a passion for sporting excellence, a desire to succeed, to accomplish certain exploits,' he enthuses. 'My passion is for this French team to be recognised. We have had a number of successes and we already have a certain record, but I want it to become a great record: it's not just a matter of winning a few games, of being able to look back and say 'I played for France'. No, what I want is for this team to achieve something greater, that we will go down in the history of the game. So we can look back and say we were part of a great team.'

It is this brand of ebullience and whole-hearted enthusiasm which has propelled Roumat in a few short months from a simple soldier to an inspirational general of the French XV. Now 27, Roumat has finally reached the maturity which many in French rugby felt was a long time coming.

Appointed captain on the tour of South Africa last June after Jean-Francois Tordo's face had been rearranged by Garry Pagel's boot at Newlands, the 6ft 6in second-rower has been nothing less than a revelation. Yesterday, as the team gathered at Orly airport before bussing to their first training session at Clairefontaine, was the first contact between the majority of the French media and the new captain. 'He's completely changed,' exclaimed one wide-eyed journalist who, like many, had seen Roumat more as a hot-head with a higher than average view of his own importance.

It was only two years ago that, in reaction to his 'attitude problem', Roumat was being left on the reserve bench to bring his self-esteem down a notch or two. Then, in April 1992 in Wellington, New Zealand, he achieved the ignominious feat of being sent off in a festival match.

A blatant kicking offence nine minutes into the second contest between New Zealand and the World XV did nothing for the already shaky image of French rugby overseas. The International Rugby Board imposed a four-week suspension, which was increased to six months by the French federation's president, Bernard Lapasset.

'That was really the turning point for me,' Roumat admits. 'On reflection I am sure it helped me to mature and to eliminate a certain aspect of my game.'

Sitting out the final stages of the French championship, then missing the summer tour to Argentina (for which, incidentally, Pierre Berbizier had thought of appointing him captain) gave him the time to mull it over, and when he was catapulted into the captain's role a year later in South Africa, he took to it as though he had been captaining France all his life.

On the field and off it Roumat immediately assumed the mantle of leader, paying close attention to the slightest detail in preparation and bringing the sort of stability and authority which were vital elements in France's victory in the Test series. Around him, his team-mates, French officials, and the travelling press were all astonished at the transformation.

All that is except one: Pierre Berbizier, the wily and inscrutable coach who never leaves anything to chance. Berbizier had Roumat sussed long before. 'It was no accident,' he asserts. 'If I chose Olivier to take over from Tordo, it was because I knew he had it in him to lead the team. I saw his potential as a captain, and so far he has done nothing but confirm that.' But, Berbizier warns, the most difficult part has yet to come for Roumat for, after his undoubted success in the rarefied atmosphere of a tour, he like the rest of the French XV must now take up the challenge of the Five Nations' Championship.

'He now has to show that he can progress,' Berbizier said. 'The ball is in his court, and as everyone knows in this game, the important thing is never to lose the ball.'

(Photograph omitted)