Chabal gives the French fresh hunger

Sale's new folk hero is back in Laporte's good books and desperate to return to international arena
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When Sébastien Chabal laughs, it's a proper laugh: head back, teeth bared, from the heart. And it can occur at almost any given moment, whether the subject is passports, pommes frites or picking on the English weather. Only when the subject turns to the impending Six Nations' Championship do the Sale and France back-rower's already saturnine features noticeably darken. Then Chabal becomes as serious as a bishop.

When Sébastien Chabal laughs, it's a proper laugh: head back, teeth bared, from the heart. And it can occur at almost any given moment, whether the subject is passports, pommes frites or picking on the English weather. Only when the subject turns to the impending Six Nations' Championship do the Sale and France back-rower's already saturnine features noticeably darken. Then Chabal becomes as serious as a bishop.

"I think the French team can beat Scotland in France," Chabal said of Saturday's tournament opener in Paris. "After that, England at Twickenham will be difficult and we have to play in Dublin: two big games, away, but we will see what we can do." And the eyeline narrows beneath the heavy, floppy fringe, while the dark, fulsome beard, you sense, twitches involuntarily at the prospect of the imminent munching of some tartan tartare.

Chabal, who signed for Sale from Bourgoin last summer, likes a feast. He wolfed down three - or was it four - plates' worth at lunch the other day before reflecting on his successful switch to England, and a first call to the colours of the Tricolore since the 2003 World Cup. It appears France's coach, Bernard Laporte, has offered some sort of olive branch - in which case, Chabal is happy to eat olives.

"I didn't think when I came to Sale it was finished with France," said the 27-year-old. "But sometimes, you know, you must think about one thing, playing well for your club. After the World Cup, nobody talked about me, and I said, 'OK, I'll change club, play well, and probably play again for France'." If that was indeed the thought process, as he followed his erstwhile club coach Philippe Saint-André to Manchester, it worked. Laporte was rumoured to have plumped for Chabal even before recent injuries suffered by the Six Nations champions' back-row stalwarts Serge Betsen and Olivier Magne.

Without Chabal, in 2004, France won eight Tests on the spin, and completed a fourth Grand Slam in eight years. The year finished, however, with alarmingly unexpected defeats by Argentina in Marseilles and, incredibly by 45-6, New Zealand in Paris. "The All Black game has not been discussed in training," said Chabal. "And I think it's better it wasn't." Cue a gale of laughter, and another when he relates how he almost forgot to renew his passport in time for today's flight to join up with the French squad.

The next question is where Chabal will play, and for how long. With 20 caps since first appearing against Scotland in 2000 he has hardly ever had the luxury of a full 80 minutes. More than once, his stamina has been called into question, though he must have passed the physical tests in Paris earlier this month which cost Betsen a tear to his quad muscle. After the corresponding tests before the 2002 championship, Chabal was told to go away and work on his endurance with Bourgoin's trainer, Bernard Fauré.

"We've used him mainly as a No 8, though he's never played there much before," said Kingsley Jones, Sale's forwards coach. A former Wales flanker, the garrulous Jones speaks of the man they have given a fishy nickname in near superhuman terms - a cross between Scott Quinnell, Dean Richards and Jonah Lomu, no less. " 'Sea Bass' is more about power than endurance," said Jones. "You must let him have his five minutes when he's not involved. He gives us great go-forward from the base of the scrum, and if the scrum's in trouble you won't get more strength at picking up other than maybe Scott Quinnell. You won't find an athlete who's so explosive going forward who can also run around all afternoon like a flanker."

Yet flanker - in France they tend to play left and right - is where Chabal has played all his Tests. During the World Cup, he got his only look-in against the United States in a pool match and New Zealand in the third-place play-off. He let the French press know his frustrations, and Laporte was not impressed. Now Chabal says the coach understood some spin was applied to the soundbites.

Laporte's team announcement on Tuesday will be intriguing; doubly so for Sale, who also have the hooker Sébastien Bruno among the 22-man selection. Without Betsen and Magne against Scotland, only Imanol Harinordoquy of the established breakaway trio is available. Bourgoin's Julien Bonnaire, with three caps, and the untried Yannick Nyanga from Béziers are the other options. "I think it's better for me to play at eight, sure," said Chabal. As a battering ram he could be devastating in creating gaps for the ever-dangerous French backs.

While his two-month-old baby, Lily Rose, is being looked after by her mother back in France, Chabal is house-sharing in Cheadle Hulme with Sale's third French forward, Pierre Caillet. "I do a bit of cooking, and so does Pierre," he said, with another smile on its way. "It is better than eating out around here."

At 6ft 3in and almost 17st, Chabal can dish out the hard stuff. He picked up a two-match ban for stamping against Bath last November. That didn't stop Sale's supporters from starting a fan club with the bearded wonder's portrait on their T-shirts. "He tends to be in the thick of it when something nasty is happening," said Sale's England hooker, Andy Titterrell. Well, after all, "sale" in French means dirty - though perhaps even Chabal might not laugh at that one.

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