Rugby Union: Rise and highs of Lamaison

Paul Trow talks to the centre whose talents have conquered Europe
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The Independent Online
A year ago , Christophe Lamaison worked as a swimming pool attendant and was ranked only eighth in the pecking order of French centres. Life was a struggle as he battled to keep his head above water and his dreams of emulating his heroes, Guy Boniface and Jo Maso, were sinking fast. Now, less than 12 months later, he is one of France's few full-time rugby players and is counted among the world's top eight in his position.

Probably more than any other team game, rugby can turn an unknown into a household name almost overnight. In the case of Lamaison, 26, it took precisely two games, both at the expense of English rugby, to establish himself as an automatic choice for his country.

The first of those seminal performances came in the final of last season's inaugural Heineken Cup in January when Brive, Lamaison's club, produced a dazzling display of 15-man rugby to steamroller Leicester. The second, six weeks later, was his virtuoso, "full house" eclipse of England at Twickenham, which set up France's fifth Grand Slam.

To date, Lamaison has won only seven caps - he debuted as a replacement against South Africa in Bordeaux last November and his most recent appearance came in Australia during the summer. But his arrival looks to have solved two problems for the French selectors - the need for a centre with attacking and defensive skills in equal measure, something which Thomas Castaignede has so far failed to deliver, and the lack of a consistent goalkicker to succeed the exiled Thierry Lacroix.

As Pontypridd contemplate today's Heineken Cup visit to Brive, they can expect to be punished by Lamaison the place-kicker if they react to the holders' powerful pack by conceding too many penalties. However, in last weekend's 56-18 dismissal of the Scottish Borders, Brive ran in eight tries and barely needed to call on Lamaison's services.

"That game was only my second of the season but my form is good because I've been playing nearly all summer," said Lamaison. "I've only had 15 days holiday but Brive have started the season well. We'll miss our big back-row man Gregori Kacala, who has gone to Cardiff, but our pack is still strong and I think we have a good chance again. But we must be careful against Pontypridd. They're the Welsh champions and in Neil Jenkins they have a great player, a match winner. As long as we keep doing well, I won't get tired. I've signed a two year contract with Brive so I don't have to work for the council any more."

The powerfully built Lamaison, nicknamed Titou, comes from a staunch Basque rugby background. His father, a butcher, was a centre and young Lamaison's appetite was whetted by tales about Boniface and Maso. He played for junior side Deyrehorade at scrum-half before switching while still a teenager to Bayonne where he was mainly a full-back or fly-half. He was a member of the unbeaten French Services team in 1994, and the following year was called on to the replacements bench for the home Tests against the All Blacks.

It was only when he moved to Brive two summers ago that he settled on centre as his principal position, with occasional forays at fly-half in Alain Penaud's absence. All but five of Lamaison's 60 international points have come via his boot, but his greatest moments undoubtedly were the final 20 minutes at Twickenham. England seemed unassailable at 20-6 ahead before he set up an opportunist touch-down for Laurent Leflamand and then skipped over for a try of his own.

"One of the great things immediately after that game was to see the Basque flags being waved in celebration alongside the Tricolors," he said. "I'm a Basque and when I first moved to Brive it felt like I was emigrating to California.

"After last season's European Cup match between Brive and Harlequins, Will Carling refused to exchange shirts with me. But when I went into the English dressing-room, he jumped up and offered his shirt straight away. That really surprised me. Even though they'd lost, the England players did not seem to be too depressed."

Today, he hopes to swop shirts with Jenkins but there is no guarantee that Pontypridd's dressing-room will be free from depression after the match.