Rugby Union: Top of the class in a new school

Paul Trow hears why Christian Califano is held in awe by friend and foe alike
Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS baptisms go in the red-hot world of international rugby, it was as close to meltdown as you get - and one which only a diehard Christian could survive.

A chubby-faced prop, barely past his 22nd birthday, made his Test debut for a new-look French team against the mighty All Blacks in their own backyard. Not only was the venue the traditionally inhospitable, rain- sodden South Island outpost of Christchurch but France were in a transitional phase and had scarcely covered themselves in glory during the preceding Five Nations' Championship.

As if that was not daunting enough for young Christian Califano, the gnarled, snarling loose-head awaiting him was the fearsome Richard Loe, who had just returned to the international fold after suspension for gouging an opponent's eye.

Yet far from buckling under the strain on that June day in 1994, the tyro stood his ground and France posted an astounding 22-8 victory, a result which they compounded in the second Test a week later in Auckland with a last-gasp 23-20 success.

The French captain for those two triumphs, Philippe Saint- Andre, now with Gloucester, remembers that Califano had been selected for the tour only to gain experience and was not expected to play in the Tests. "But after two weeks on tour, we couldn't possibly leave him out. He was very talented and very fast - almost as fast as me over 20 metres and capable of clocking 12 seconds over 100m," said Saint-Andre. "When we chose the team for the first Test, he forced his way in. He played fantastically and by the end of the tour he was our No1 prop."

Understandably, Califano, who moved to Toulouse from his native Toulon via Bourges, where he briefly studied the history of art, also has fond memories of his debut. "Seeing my name in the team for the first time was special because I was lining up against the best side in the world," said Califano. "Playing against Loe brought the best out of me, but if I hadn't risen to the challenge it could have been my last game for France."

Nearly four years and 41 caps later Califano, who is still only 25, enjoys the reputation of being not only among the world's top three props, but also one of the most versatile. Nowadays, he plies his trade at loose head (he switched two years ago), where he lines up this afternoon forFrance as they chase the Grand Slam against Wales at Wembley.

Califano has become essential to the Tricolores and could remain so for the next decade, and if his good fortune with injuries persists, he may exceed Philippe Sella's world record of 111 caps. "I'm not sure how long I'll go on, but it will be at least until after the World Cup. We must do better than we did in 1995," said Califano. "However, it's quite possible I'll be younger when I give it up than Jeff Probyn was when he started his international career [31]. You just can't tell what's going to happen - things change."

David Young, his opposite number today, will hope they do. He has ended up on the losing side in both their previous meetings - last year's championship and this season's Heineken Cup encounter between Cardiff and Toulouse. But the truth is that Califano's all-round skills will again present a hefty challenge.

Jason Leonard, the long- serving England prop who has also done sterling service on both sides of the scrum, rates the young Frenchman as highly as any of his adversaries. "He's outstanding, not least because he is as good on the tight as the loose even though he needs to use different angles and muscles. It's very demanding mentally as well as physically," he said.

"Christian is fast, mobile and comfortable with the ball in his hands but relishes his job in the nitty gritty of the tight as well. He's a great competitor but enjoys his rugby with a passion and loves the social side of it."

Leonard gets no argument from Scotland's Tom Smith. "Christian epitomises what the modern prop is all about," the Lions prop concluded.

The one blot on Califano's career so far is South Africa, and the 50- point thrashing they handed out to France in their spanking new Parisian stadium last November. "That was the worst moment of my rugby life. I felt like a spectator - it was terrible," said Califano. "We had to work very hard to come back from that to beat England."

Massimo Cuttitta, Harlequins' veteran Italian prop, believes Califano and his fellow 25-year-old Toulouse prop Franck Tounaire should be assessed as a pair rather than individually. "It would be unfair to say that Califano is the one doing the work. They're a mighty combination," he said.

The same, it is hoped, will be said of Califano and his wife Annabelle on Thursday when their first child, a girl destined to be named Cloelia is due to be born. "Even though she's a girl, she'll definitely be a rugby player," Califano said. Which echoes exactly what Saint-Andre once said of the father to be: "Christian was born to play rugby."

Wales v France

at Wembley

K Morgan Pontypridd 15 J L Sadourny Colmiers

W Proctor Llanelli 14 P Bernat-Salles Pau

N Boobyer Llanelli 13 C Lamaison Brive

L Davies Cardiff 12 S Glas Bourgoin

G Thomas Cardiff 11 X Garbajosa Toulouse

N Jenkins Pontypridd 10 T Castaignede Castres

R Howley Cardiff, capt 9 P Carbonneau Brive

A Lewis Cardiff 1 C Califano Toulouse

G Jenkins Swansea 2 R Ibanez Dax, capt

D Young Cardiff 3 F Tournaire Toulouse

M Voyle Llanelli 4 O Brouzet Begles

A Moore Swansea 5 F Pelous Toulouse

R Appleyard Swansea 6 M Lievremont Perpignan

C Charvis Swansea 7 O Magne Brive

S Davies Swansea 8 T Lievremont Perpignan