Rugby Union:Peril of Brive encounter

Stephen Brenkley says Llanelli's trip to France today is fraught with difficulty
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In the pretty French market town whose team have suddenly emerged as favourites for the European Cup the inhabitants have long been enthralled by rugby. They could be said to live and Brive it. This has been so almost since they started playing there in 1907. The difference now is that they have the clout to match the passion.

"It's easy to tell that this is a club going places," said Grant Ross, their New Zealand lock forward in his third season. "Rugby dominates the whole place. More than 20,000 lined the streets last year when the team got back from winning their first ever trophy. That's about a third of the population and now we're getting fans travelling two or three hours to watch us."

Brive's fortunes were transformed three years ago in an early example of a pattern not totally unfamiliar in England: the advent of a millionaire benefactor. In their case they had the advantage of what might be called a double whammy. The new president of the town's sports club - of which the rugby section is the most significant part - was Pierre Dauzier, the head of a communications conglomerate. The new president of the rugby club was the comic impersonator Patrick Sebastien, one of France's biggest television stars.

Both were local boys made good. They had found fame and fortune elsewhere but they returned fully prepared to use both assets to put Brive on the rugby map from its rustic base on the geographical one 300 miles south of Paris. They outlined adventurous plans and immediately made money available for the import of players in anticipation of professionalism - Ross was part of the influx. The results have been increasingly impressive. Three of Brive's players were picked for France last week and it would have been no surprise had another three earned the selectorial nod.

Last season they finished runners-up to Toulouse in the French championship and won the knockout competition, the Challenge Du-Manoir, the first honour in their 89-year history. They are again helping to set the pace in the complicated domestic championship, which will not unravel until later in the season when play- offs start. But it was Brive's four wins in the Heineken European Cup matches which captured British attention and installed them as serious contenders for the title. Nobody seriously expects them to lose their quarter-final tie today against Llanelli before a fervent home crowd of 15,000.

"There is a feeling here that we are capable of winning it," said Ross, who has been denied a place today by the long-running injury which prompted the signing of the Wales B lock Tony Rees as cover - a role he has filled admirably. "We think we've got a big advantage at home but we have adapted well to playing British clubs. Our discipline at set pieces has been crucial."

That discipline has been instilled by the coach Laurent Seigne, which is perhaps a somewhat perverse revelation because as a French international prop Seigne invariably lived up to a reputation for being hard in the most euphemistic sense. In 1990 he was part of the French front row which, it is said, prepared for a match against New Zealand by head-butting each other. They lost.

Seigne, another local boy who has come home, has now eschewed that sort of training and his own past misdemeanours, instilling instead in his forwards the need for control and unity. Ross called him a brilliant coach. But if the forwards have worshipped on the altar of discipline, Brive's backs are playing the French way. Their international half-back pairing of Alain Penaud and Philippe Carbonneau has been inspirational and the thrilling wing Sebastian Carat, a 10.53sec 100-metre runner, has scored tries in each European match so far, eight in all.

As Patrick Sebastien said: "Europe is a dream which, in reality, can be expected to come true."