Rugby Union: Mesnel has bit between his teeth

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: France recall the strongman. Ian Borthwick reports
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Last Sunday evening, Franck Mesnel sat quietly in a corner of the James Joyce, yet another of the Irish bars mushrooming across Paris. While his Racing Club team-mates analysed - at infinite length as rugby players all over the world are wont to do - their afternoon's win, Mesnel was in a reflective mood.

As if innoculating himself for this weekend's game in Dublin, he was nursing a half-pint of Guinness (£2.50 a half being the current Paris price) and listening with half an ear to the young lady singing "Molly Malone'', his thoughts already turning to Lansdowne Road. "Everyone's talking about how we are going to bounce back after the defeat against Scotland," he said. "But first of all we have to think about how we can resist the Irish. They are never easy to play against - they might wear green, but there is no risk of mistaking them for the grass!"

Mesnel's recall to the French team for their final game of the Five Nations' Championship after a two-year absence is considered by some to be a sign of desperation by the selectors, who have also called up two other members of the old guard: Marc Ceillon (35) and Louis Armary (31). Certainly, at 33 years and nine months, Mesnel can hardly be regarded as a hope for the future, but for those who have followed him week in and week out for Racing, he is still one of the outstanding performers in the French championship.

"What does old mean? I certainly don't feel old and I'm sure the example of Linford Christie is enough to prove that a player of my age still has something to offer. I'm not sure how my body will hold up, but in my head I'm as fresh as a 20-year-old."

Having started as a stand-off, where he won 22 of his 52 caps, the 14st 7lb Mesnel now specialises at centre, and his French- record partnership with Philippe Sella will increase on Saturday from 20 to 21 appearances.

Sporting what must still be one of the most impressive pairs of thighs in world rugby, he has a freakish capacity to remain standing in the tackle. His strength is such that he can occupy three defenders, and his explosive bursts in midfield have become his trade mark, just as the pink bow-tie has become the trade mark for his immensely successful "Eden Park" menswear range.

Having started with one shop in 1987, the former architecture student turned clothes designer now counts a total of 10 stores throughout France with another 100 outlets for the range. Success has been such that they have now opened an "Eden Park" bar in the exclusive Latin Quarter, and six weeks ago Peugeot released a new limited edition 306 Eden Park, complete with headrests in the shape of leather rugby balls.

Overlooked since the France v Wales match in 1993, Mesnel has nevertheless remained close to the French squad, a valuable back-up if the indefatigable Sella ever broke down. "I haven't played for two years for strategic reasons. Apparently they needed a centre who could also kick goals, or rather a goal-kicker who played centre. So in terms of just playing as a centre, I could never defend my chances."

Nevertheless, a series of irresistible games for his club last year was rewarded with a place on the tour to New Zealand and Canada. The tour turned into a major disappointment, though. After a brilliant performance against Canada B, an over-vigorous session on the step machine in the team hotel reawakened an old knee injury and after scarcely a week in New Zealand, Mesnel was invalided out of the tour.

Having grown up in the affluent suburbs of the west of Paris, Mesnel, who paints watercolours in his spare time, is something of a paradox in French rugby. Exquisitely well-mannered, often painfully polite, he was even satirised in a recent novel by his Racing team-mate Philippe Guillard as someone who apologises three times before saying sorry.

Indeed, an incident sparked by his knee injury is a perfect example. Waking in intense pain in the middle of the night, Mesnel, for fear of disturbing his sleeping room-mate Thierry Lacroix, set off to find the team doctor, clad only in a bath towel. However, the pain was so great that he passed out in the lift, and was only discovered by the hotel receptionists when the lift returned to the ground floor. Anyone else would have simply stayed in bed and phoned for help.

After a couple of operations, the offending knee is now healed, and Mesnel is determined to seize his chance with both hands. A convincing performance at Lansdowne Road will mean a certain ticket for his third World Cup. "They have taken me out of the preserving jar, put me on the artificial respirator, and I am ready to go," he said, sipping another Guinness. "For me, this game against Ireland is a make or break situation and I will be playing without any afterthought. In club games, I might play within myself because I have to get through the season, but on Saturday I won't be holding anything back - there is no long-term or even short- term plan; I have one match to play and that is all."

Happy, for the time being, to be regarded as a convenient replacement, Mesnel nevertheless defends the group ethic, pointing to other "physical" sports such as American football, where the regular replacement of players within a team situation is a fact of life.

"You don't prepare for a World Cup with just 15 players. You need almost double that, and you have to be able to call on them at any moment. I don't mean that I am just an old player who can be called on to give the others a rest; once you get that beefsteak between your teeth you don't want to let it go. And on Saturday I'll be going out to defend my piece of beefsteak."