Rugby Union: France's new main Magne

The flying flank forward of the future is putting his inconsistent past behind him
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The Independent Online
IT HAS puzzled anthropologists for years; the inexplicable gap in man's development. But as far as the evolution of rugby is concerned France have discovered the missing link. He was unearthed in their back row during the trouncing of Scotland.

Olivier Magne's performance had the crowd buzzing and the critics raving. "He rewrote the textbook at open-side flanker," said one eminent pundit. Magne, 24, was part of a trio who could shake up the southern hemisphere. True, they were playing in a dominant side, which meant he could employ his wonderful skills in a helpful environment, but even so there were several breathtaking moments as he linked between backs and forwards to devastating effect.

His back-row colleague Marc Lievremont is already a big fan. "First, there are his attacking qualities; his speed, his handling skills, his ball retention and his sense of positioning," he said. "He has played a lot of sevens, a game that has also given him a good sense of space. He is not afraid to use that space, where he likes to link with his threequarters."

Against Scotland Magne had a hand (and on one occasion a foot) in four of the seven tries. The Scotland flanker Simon Holmes was on the receiving end. His view of the farmer's son from Aurillac in the Auvergne is close to Lievremont's. "A game when a side is going forward into a lot of space and where he can work with the backs, shows someone like Magne in his best light. He's got pace and great hands. With the first try he created, when he went through, he put in a pass off his left hand to the wing at full pace, which demonstrated he has outstanding ball skills."

The France coach, Jean-Claude Skrela, tried to put the brakes on the laudatory bandwagon, saying: "He needs to concentrate more defensively. There are still too many lapses. However good he looks, he is not the finished article."

Magne, who now has 11 caps, moved from Dax to Brive in the summer. "I wanted to take my game up a level," he said at the time. "At Dax we trained three times a week, whereas here we are training twice, sometimes three times, a day."

Lievremont reckons it has paid off. "I think this year he has added another dimension to his game. His fitness levels have improved, he makes his physical presence felt and he is improving in defence. He is also more consistent. Too often in the past he would have one really good game followed by a couple of shockers. He is more motivated and more serious."

But there is also a great deal of the showman to the Brive back-row man. His antics after a French try are aimed specifically at the crowd. He will turn to the stands, drop to one knee and fire an imaginary pistol. The pitch is his stage. "He is fun-loving and enjoys a practical joke," said Lievremont. "A real extrovert."

He also has an impulsive streak, which translates into touches of genius on the pitch and moments of whimsy off it. He dyed his hair blond after a sevens tournament in Uruguay last January; paid for his parents' holiday in Greece last year because they had never been abroad before. Last weekend he paid for their trip to Murrayfield. It all adds up to one thing - he is a star, even though he dismisses the notion. "Stars are good for youngsters to identify with, but it is not in my nature. I am from a simple rural background. My parents are farmers." Some yokel.