Rugby Union: The free spirit of Europe

Andrew Longmore finds Castaignede is determined to remain a pleasure seeker
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IT HAS taken time and a disastrous collision with a bottle of hair dye for the winsome talents of Thomas Castaignede to be fully recognised. Taken some guts too, not only to defy his mother with the bleach but to advertise every twitch of nerve and sinew in a game which encourages anonymity. Castaignede, though, has never been one to hide his light, let alone his highlights.

From the moment he announced himself to the Five Nations' Championship by dropping the winning goal in the last minute to give France precious victory over England in 1996, Castaignede has been the cheeky chappie of French rugby, a Chaplinesque player of style and swinging cane who has a keen eye for adventure and only half an eye for the score. He was nicknamed Monsieur le Drop, much to his disgust.

Even in these hard-nosed professional days, Castaignede still speaks the language of the glorious amateur. Phrases such as "giving pleasure" and "having fun" remain in his vocabulary, French and English. Beating England that afternoon, on the eve of his 21st birthday, gave him pleasure, he said, purely because a win against the old enemy was so long overdue, but the dire, attritional, manner of the victory gave him no satisfaction at all. He received the ball five times and kicked four away, the fifth bobbled uncomfortably through the posts to earn national acclaim. "Now we have beaten England," he said. "We can start playing properly." By playing properly, the young Toulousian meant playing with spirit, flair or, as he once so beautifully put it, with "hazards". Castaignede is the duke of hazard. All great French teams have been blessed with a sense of the haphazard.

"I take my rugby like a joke, just for fun," he once said. "To me, it is like playing with friends. Even though I know it's very important, I am still trying to get pleasure from playing, for me and the crowd. I would prefer to lose but score some tries. Maybe I will have to change, but that's just the way I am."

Quite how much of that spirit has survived a traumatic 1997 season, cut short by a blow to the jaw - delivered, ironically, by a member of the Castres side for whom he now plays - will be a mystery unravelled further at Murrayfield on Saturday. Castaignede has much to prove before the expectations are realised. "I have to be more cautious now, to find touch, to concentrate more," he said. "Sometimes when I have to do something easy, I am thinking 'this is easy' and I mess it up. It's the same with the team, one week we can be good, the next week bad, we have to be more consistent." His tactical kicking is unproven, his physique has yet to withstand the rigours of a full international calendar and the recent turnover of French fly- halves encourages the sort of long-term thinking adopted by members of Italian governments, as he is only too aware.

"They build you up very high, then you have a bad match and they put you very low," he said. "Everyone expects a lot from me now. At least it means I am interesting to a lot of people and I like that."

In Castaignede's absence last season, France used three fly-halves in the Five Nations - David Aucagne, Alain Penaud and Christophe Lamaison - before returning to Thierry Lacroix for the recent annihilation by South Africa. No wonder that the success of the experimental side for the inaugural match at the Stade de France last weekend was greeted with outpourings of relief from Paris to Pau. The pre-match pillow talk was not, as widely believed, pure bluff. For all the dominance of their clubs, the French were deeply uncertain about the strength of their national side.

"We had a big disillusion against South Africa, so we were really motivated for the match against England, " he said. "We had to win. The danger against Scotland is that we think we have already won. Two years ago, we had a really bad match there and we have to prove that was an accident."

Castaignede's appeal extends beyond the mere appreciation of his mercurial running and passing. His little-boy-lost looks melt mothers' hearts from north to south and his rugby pedigree would pass the test of the sternest historian. A student of chemical engineering, he was brought up in the south-west of France and honed his skills from the age of five at the Mont-de-Marsan club which produced the great Boniface brothers and Benoit Dauga. His father Pierre, a gifted stand-off himself, made sure the legend was duly absorbed.

His international debut came at the age of 19, against Romania in 1994; a tougher examination was set by the All Blacks in Toulouse the same year where his two conversions and a long-range penalty helped France to an unexpected win. The European Cup final brought Castaignede's skills to a wider audience. He was a key figure in Toulouse's defeat of Cardiff, scoring one try, setting up a second with a looping break and kicking a drop goal in the final minutes to seal the win. Newcastle led the bidders when Castaignede's contract with Toulouse ran out, but the influence of the French Federation helped to thwart another high profile transfer to the nouveaux riches of English rugby and Castaignede moved to Castres, a few miles to the east of Toulouse, where the fly-half berth was vacant. Now Castaignede is in pole position to lead France into the World Cup, a huge responsibility for such slender shoulders. "Rugby is a little more serious now," he said. "But I try to keep the old spirit and I always feel confident in what I do, in life or in rugby."