Rugby Union / Five Nations Focus: Twin duels equip Lacroix for dual role: Brotherly rivalry carves out France's stone-hearted centre with the gift for goal-kicking. Ian Borthwick reports from Paris

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The Independent Online
HE CLAIMS that jealousy has been the motivating force which has got him where he is, and that his success as a sportsman is due more to sibling rivalry than anything else.

But Thierry Lacroix, who scored 20 points in France's opening game of the Five Nations' Championship, is no ordinary sportsman. Take the fact that despite suddenly appearing as a world-class points scorer against the Irish, he does not wish to be considered a goal-kicker. Lacroix missed only one kick - a sideline conversion of Olivier Merle's last-minute try - from seven attempts.

'When I prepare for a game, I never prepare myself in the role of a kicker,' he said. 'I prepare first and foremost as a player. My principal objective is not to score points from the opposition's mistakes, but to go out on the pitch and enjoy myself, make a break in the centres, put a team-mate into a gap, just get as much out of the game as I can.'

The fact, as Wales will find out at Cardiff on Saturday, that Lacroix can combine the role of centre with that of goal-kicker makes him all the more unusual. His position puts him under more pressure than most other kickers, who play at stand-off or full-back. Even more unusual, Lacroix does not practise the kind of breathing, visualisation or concentration techniques used by the likes of Michael Lynagh, Grant Fox or Naas Botha.

'I have never had any need for all that stuff. I just put it down to the fact that I am not an emotional person,' he said. 'Some people say I have got a heart of stone and I guess as a goal-kicker that is the main aim. Ever since I was a kid I have been kicking goals with the philosophy that whether it goes over or not doesn't really matter. I would never lose any sleep over it, but the very same attitude means that I can miss my first three kicks and still not feel ruffled when it comes to the fourth.'

Life, he claims, still goes on if the ball does not go over, which seems a curious attitude at a time when more and more internationals are being decided by penalty kicks. 'I am a paradoxical person. On the field of play I can be hyper-aggressive on defence and in a fraction of a second I can become hyper-relaxed to kick at goal. But I am just the same in everyday life: I can explode with anger because something gets on my nerves and a fraction of a second later I can be calm and diplomatic.'

Born in the village of Nogaro in the south-west of France, Lacroix grew up with his twin brother, Pascal, in the small town of Saint-Paul-les-Dax where they both attended the local Ecole de Rugby from the age of seven. Being the senior of the two by 20 minutes, however, did nothing for Thierry, as in practically everything they did - and they did everything together - Pascal was always better. 'At school he was brighter than me; in sports he was faster and stronger.'

So whether it was school work or rugby technique (they have played alongside each other for France at school, under-18, university - where they won the 1992 World Cup - and Army level), Thierry always had to work harder to catch up. It is what he calls 'healthy jealousy': the determination not to be left behind.

The hard work paid off: he passed his Baccalaureat before Pascal and just when the younger twin's career was disrupted by a serious knee injury, Thierry was called into the French team as a reserve in the 1988 championship.

Today, at 27, they are in their 10th season of first division rugby in France, forming a close left-wing, left-centre partnership for Dax, where they also share a physiotherapy practice. 'Pascal is still faster than me and we have a kind of unspoken understanding on the field. We don't need to explain to each other what we are going to do; we know each other so well that everything happens naturally. There's something intangible between us, but for twin brothers it's also something logical. . . '

With 18 caps to his credit, Lacroix is at last installed as a permanent fixture alongside Philippe Sella in the French back line. But why has it taken from 1988 until now for him to be recognised? 'My studies,' he said. For three years in succession, Lacroix was selected for the Tricolores' summer tour to the southern hemisphere, but three times he withdrew so as not to miss his physiotherapy exams. 'I'm sure that slowed me down a lot. So often it is on tour that a team really

cements itself and, as I never went on tour, I always felt left out.'

However, he says that he has no regrets for putting his profession before his sport. 'I have maybe five years of rugby left, but I've got another 30 years when I have to earn a living. And I tell you what: if tomorrow I was forced to make a decision between my job and my rugby career, I would choose my job.'

For the time being he is the man of stone on whose goal-kicking the French will be counting at Cardiff, a game which threatens to be a trap for the Tricolores, who are enjoying a record run of 12 consecutive wins against Wales.

'The Welsh must be euphoric after their victories and we know that they will have their public behind them more than ever before,' Lacroix said. 'It is all the more reason for us to avoid any complacency and to realise that securing a win in Cardiff might be the most difficult task of this championship. I believe that beating Wales is even more important now than beating England in Paris - I'm sure there will be a greater impact internationally if we manage to win away than at home.'

(Photograph omitted)