Rugby Union: Five Nations Focus: Cabannes the French bionic man: Back-row hero returns to face England in Paris tomorrow. Ian Borthwick reports

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The Independent Online
TWO years ago they called him le miracule - the miracle man. But this time the French press has gone even further as Laurent Cabannes has once again come galloping to the rescue, despite not having played rugby for five months after undergoing major surgery in November. Now it is Superman who has returned to the French team for tomorrow's vital match against England in Paris.

'Frankly I don't care for terms such as Superman,' says Cabannes. 'It's just a thing journalists have about finding an angle. I am neither a saviour nor a super-being. I have just been selected to play for France with my own particular qualities.'

The Paris-based champagne merchant's previous recovery - from major injuries sustained in a car accident - is already well documented. In 1989-90 he spent 14 months not knowing whether he would ever have the use of his right arm again, let alone pull on the royal blue French jersey. Cabannes still wears a guard to protect his upper arm and a four-inch plate with 12 metal screws holds the bone together.

Even those close to Cabannes, however, have been astounded by the speed with which he has recovered from extensive thigh surgery, and his return to the back row for tomorrow's game is one of the most surprising selectorial decisions of recent years.

'I know it is a risk, but it is a calculated risk,' Pierre Berbizier, the French coach, said. 'Nobody knows whether he can last 80 minutes of international rugby, but he has shown so much enthusiasm and such a desire to play that it is a gamble I am prepared to take.'

Cabannes has been out of action since September. A pulled hamstring in a club match - in which, incidentally, he was playing in the centre - failed to respond to treatment and eventually came away from the bone in the upper thigh.

Today he jokes about his leg looking like a zip fastener, and says he is likely to come apart at the seams. But the reality is that Cabannes' hamstring was bunched up behind the knee and his whole thigh had to be opened up to reinsert it.

There followed 45 days of scar-healing before Cabannes launched himself into physical training like a man possessed. Not a drop of alcohol passed his lips over the Christmas season except, he admits, for a slight overdose of champagne on New Year's Eve. For perhaps the first time in his life the erstwhile dilettante trained every day, rain or shine through the Paris winter.

Only two weeks ago he was still not in the French selectors' considerations. He went to Cardiff for the Welsh game as a consultant for a radio station, and it was only an energetic discussion with Berbizier at Cardiff airport which prompted the coach to call Cabannes into last week's squad session.

'I just thought it would be good to see how he was coming along,' Berbizier said. 'Nobody expected him to be fit for another two months.'

Last Friday Cabannes astounded everybody. He soared in the line-out, tackled like a demon and, according to one team official, appeared physically fitter than ever before.

Hence Berbizier's gamble. Cabannes may well be the spark this French team needs to rekindle the passion of last year's performances. His support play and his presence at the back of the line-out are definite bonuses for les tricolores, who against Ireland and Wales were a pale imitation of the team which beat South Africa in June and drew a series with the Australians in November.

Cabannes himself appears totally at ease with the situation. 'In life you have to take a few risks, venture off the beaten path,' he says.

'I am above all a sportsman and what drives me is the hunger for competition. If I have surprised people by making a rapid recovery it is also because it's been a challenge. I have a certain philosophy of life and I have found it is often the difficult moments of life which allow you to progress.'

Cabannes has added much to the French squad since they assembled on Wednesday. Not only does his wit often have team-mates doubling over with laughter, but his lightning pace and anticipation are the keys to improving the link between forwards and backs, thus ensuring the continuity so lacking in their two previous performances.

'The most important thing is for us to be successful as a team,' he says. 'I don't care about having a brilliant individual performance on Saturday. What I care about is our whole team being brilliant.'

Superman or not, Laurent Cabannes will remain an exceptional case, the kind of player who is at his best when confronted with adversity. 'Two years ago we were humiliated on our home ground. This year we must put an end to the sequence of defeats against England. It's going to be difficult, but we all have a ferocious desire to win.'

(Photograph omitted)