Azam and Mercier bid adieu in search of national ambition

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The Independent Online

There is a story about the volcanically combustible Olivier Azam that explains precisely why he counts the most passionate elements of the Gloucester faithful, the Kingsholm "Shedheads", among his extended family. The way his colleagues tell it, the 18-stone hooker confronted the club's wages clerk over some missing salary cheques with a simple nine-word sentence, delivered in fluent Franglais: "You have five minutes to give me my money." When the poor sap in the office informed him that any payment would have to be signed off by senior management, Azam glanced darkly at his wristwatch and said: "You have four and a half minutes." For some strange reason, he was paid instantly.

That tale may or may not owe something to poetic licence, but the veracity of another, about Ludovic Mercier, is easily established. Another Frenchman, lured across the water by Philippe Saint-André in the early days of his Cotswold stewardship, Mercier is the scorer of 646 Premiership points in the two seasons since his transfer from Aurillac, and his 952 points in all tournaments is a contribution that accounts for his own special relationship with the most vocal crowd in English club rugby.

Two things matter to the denizens of The Shed: selfless devotion in the heat of battle and points on the board. One way or another, Azam and Mercier have covered all the angles. And now, it is over - or rather, it will be the moment Tony Spreadbury calls time on this afternoon's Zurich Premiership final at Twickenham.

Azam is returning to Montferrand in the hope of making Bernard Laporte's squad for the World Cup in Australia this autumn; Mercier is off to Grenoble, one of the up and coming sides at the élite end of the French domestic game. As neither Montferrand nor Grenoble have made the cut for next season's Heineken Cup, it is safe to assume a degree of financial incentive in all this - Azam is unlikely to find himself asking for his money amid the high-class swank of Parc Marcel-Michelin - but international ambition is the root cause. Both men believe that Gloucester, fun as it may be, is too far outside the bespectacled Laporte's field of vision.

Mercier is particularly keen to catch the eye of his national coach, for unlike Azam, he has yet to represent his country. Asked whether he felt he had not been watched as regularly as his form demanded, his response betrayed a high level of exasperation. "I really don't know what more I need to do," he said. "I am described by many people as a goal-kicker first and an outside-half second, but if you look at the statistics you will see that I have kicked less than last year, but scored many more tries. I think I have improved my fitness, too. The outside-half position in the national team is open, for sure, but it seems I must play in France to prove that I have made progress."

Perversely, Mercier has the more obvious route into the Test team, despite his uncapped status. Laporte has been bouncing between Gerald Merceron of Montferrand, François Gelez of Agen and Frédéric Michalak of Toulouse for more than a year now, and is no nearer a solution than he was last summer. Azam, on the other hand, is really up against it. Among the most spectacularly effective tight forwards in Europe on his day, he is nevertheless struggling to see a way past Laporte's options of Raphael Ibanez, who has captained France to both a Grand Slam and a World Cup final, and Jean-Baptiste Rue.

"I don't feel as though I've been watched by the French management, or that I've been taken into consideration," he said, with characteristic honesty. "The staff at Gloucester are disappointed, and so am I. It is possible that I will return, for I will miss the bond of friendship at Kingsholm.

"Over the last three seasons, we in the pack have become a single identity, and I have no doubt that this is one of the best places in Europe to play rugby. Twickenham is second to Kingsholm, I believe.

"But I have this one year at Montferrand, where the challenge will be very great, and I must see how it goes. I think this is a good time to go back, not just because of the World Cup, but because the French clubs have caught up with the English in mentality, in discipline and in professionalism. If this move works out, maybe I will stay."

Azam is perhaps the most fascinating figure in the club game, something of a psychologist's dream. His rival front-rowers respect his close- quarter power and open-field skills, but suspect his motives; they see him as brilliant talent, undermined by a streak of malevolence. For his part, Azam recognises the Adam in himself and is comfortable with it - rather like the fun-loving Catholic who prays, "Please God, make me good, but not yet". He says he would like to improve his self-control, but not by much. "I think I've changed as a rugby player, because I have better skills now," he explained. "But I am not sure I have changed as a person, or that I want to change. To play this game in this position, you must have an edge. I cannot exist without my aggression."

He has a point. Rather like the Martin Johnsons, Danny Grewcocks and Julian Whites of the union parish - not to mention his more ruthless Gloucester confrères, the Junior Paramores and Adam Eustaces - he acknowledges the truth that, increasingly in the television age, dare not speak its name: that rugby is, first and foremost, a game of physical domination, of superiority based on the ruthless application of collective muscle. Take a straw poll of Premiership professionals, and Azam would be right up there among the players best avoided. In the Frenchman's book, that is a compliment, not a criticism.

As a matter of fact, Azam is considerably more disciplined these days. It is still a fairly bad idea to pick a fight with him, admittedly, but the worst excesses spend longer under lock and key. Eighteen months ago, he would not have used the words "precision and concentration" to describe his approach to an occasion like today's, but these are now the staples of his preparation. "I do not think emotion can play any part, even though it is my last game for the club," he said. "This is the grand final, the best moment of the season. If we are as good as everyone says we are, we must win this match against a strong Wasps team. I will play as physically as I can, but with complete concentration. Nothing else will work."

For Mercier, of course, concentration is everything. He is a world-class marksman, far more dependable, and equipped with a greater range, than the majority of his rivals in the Premiership - and, come to that, the best of the kickers back home in France. He leads the season's scoring chart with 255 points (his closest challenger, Alex King, is his direct opponent today), and is now acknowledged as a player of value. Laporte, who holds the key to his international future, will not be at Twickenham - he will be at Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier for the French championship semi-final between Toulouse and Agen - but if only for this one afternoon, Mercier is more interested in impressing his club coach.

"For me, Nigel Melville could be the best coach in Europe," he said. "When Philippe Saint-André left Gloucester, I wondered if I should stay. One conversation with Nigel gave me the confidence to remain and make the best of myself. I am grateful to him.

"We could have won the Heineken Cup this year, for sure, but our collapse at Munster undid us. I still find it difficult to think about that day in Limerick, but I must think about it for the lessons it gives me. Those lessons must be applied to this final. When you play for the best club in England, it is necessary to win on the big occasion. This is my incentive, my only incentive. I will think about Grenoble and France when I have finished here."