Charvis puts life on hold to lift Wales

The Celtic challenge: If England and France are to be stretched, the Welsh, Irish and Scots will look to their talismen
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The Independent Online

Colin Charvis leant back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and failed to stifle a yawn. The Wales captain likes to play it low-key. "From the moment when I wake up and decide whether to go out training or have a lie-in, being a professional rugby player is a complete challenge,'' he said.

It is not the case that there is only one Colin Charvis. He seems to have as many images as hairstyles, and after playing hard to get when the Neath-Swansea Ospreys offered him a contract last year, led his country into the World Cup with the status of "unattached''. No sooner had he returned with his reputation enhanced than he did a very Charvis-like thing - he left the Principality to play Second Division French rugby with Tarbes. This is like Lawrence Dallaglio leaving London to play for Calvisano. ''The rugby,'' Charvis maintained, "is not that different to what I've been used to, although it probably doesn't have the same intensity as the Heineken Cup. It doesn't mean I've been allowed to have a relaxing time. I'm playing in a different language with added challenges.

"In some ways life is more difficult, like choosing the right food at the supermarket. They do things a bit differently in France. If you win you're entitled to a small treat. You will have a glass of red wine and some foie gras, but everything in moderation.''

Installed in an apartment in town, he is learning the language. "I don't think it will be much use to me when we're playing France. If they talk fast I'll be stumped. Maybe one day I'll be able to hold a conversation. I never realised how passionate the support is in France. I always thought it was primarily a football nation, but the enthusiasm of the fans is unrivalled. I've never seen anything like it. You can go to a village which has a population of 1,000 for a match on a Sunday afternoon and 2,000 people will turn up. They take it so seriously. Tarbes have 123 sponsors or partners. That would be very strange in Wales.''

Charvis does not give the impression that rugby is his raison d'être. When he was a Wales Under-21 international and playing for London Welsh a decade ago he described his occupation as "resting'' and his role model as Andy Cole, because he's "so laid-back he's horizontal''.

Charvis has a sound working relationship with Steve Hansen, the Wales coach, who returns to New Zealand after the Six Nations to renew his partnership with Graham Henry. By the time Wales play the All Blacks in the autumn, Henry and Hansen will be back in Cardiff plotting Wales's downfall. Asked for his view on Hansen, Charvis replied: "That's better than the last question, which was, who do I think should replace him. He's brought a lot of things to the party. His contribution has been quite interesting. He's transformed the attitude of the squad and has been very professional. One day when he writes his book...''

Hansen, who is sitting next to Charvis, smiled. If the No 8, who was educated at the University of Westminster, gets round to producing his autobiography he too will have stories to tell. Last season Wales were whitewashed in the Six Nations, and when they crashed to Italy in Rome, Hansen took Charvis off 12 minutes from the end. Pictures of the captain smiling as he sat on the bench led to him being compared to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in a website poll of the most hated man in Wales.

Although Charvis was temporarily stripped of the captaincy, Hansen, who has always identified him as one of Wales's few world-class players, stuck by him. "He has been attacked from day one and it has destroyed his playing ability,'' Hansen said six months ago. When Swan- sea went into administration, Charvis did his own thing. He gained sponsorship from several individuals, trained on his own and stopped playing club rugby. It was thought that Martyn Williams would take over the captaincy for the World Cup, but he recommended Charvis.

''You have to take the highs and lows and the lows can be fairly catastrophic,'' Charvis said. "You can't take every knock to heart. There's a hell of a lot of honour involved in being the captain of Wales.'' As he demonstrated in Australia where, after some staccato performances, Wales illuminated the World Cup with a dazzling show against the All Blacks and another against England in the quarter-finals.

"The way we played in those two games was a reflection of how much work we'd put in,'' Charvis said. "It was a double-edged sword. They were two of the most entertaining matches in the tournament but the fact is we lost them both. We've got to perform for the 80 minutes. Now we'll see whether the work we've done since can enable us to move up a level. There's a huge degree of excitement. We've grown up a lot over the last 18 months and learnt a few harsh lessons.''

Notwithstanding the impression that Wales, relieved of all constraints after reaching the last eight in Australia, played a makeshift team with a gameplan to match against New Zealand in Sydney, Hansen expects his squad to have a say in the outcome of the championship.

''After the World Cup I went home to New Zealand and people were shaking my hand and telling me how great it was to see that Welsh rugby was back. We scored four tries against the All Blacks and 3-1 against England, and with a better roll of the dice that game could have ended differently. We have to analyse why it didn't.''

Hansen's grasp of the Welsh language is not dissimilar to Charvis's French. "I can say hello and goodbye,'' the coach said, which is handy. "It would have been ideal if Colin was still in Wales, but on the other hand he has the benefit of not being in the public eye. There's a lot of pressure on the captain in Wales. He's grown into the role and has the ability to think in the heat of the battle. He's also improved the leadership of those under him.''

Charvis's fitness is monitored in France, albeit by telephone or email, by Andrew Hore, the Wales conditioning coach. "I hear from him more often than I'd like,'' Charvis said. "It's difficult keeping tabs on everything that's happening back home but I talk daily about what's going on.'' And he can watch rugby on television because his former colleague Arwel Thomas, who plays for Pau, a 20-minute drive away, has Sky.

''I'm content in France,'' Charvis said, "But there's no place like home. At the moment it's nice to be back among close friends. I've no idea what I'll be doing after this season.'' A lot depends on whether he wants to go training or stay in bed.

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