It is difficult to tell whether more eyebrows were raised when Christophe Dominici's name was announced in the France XV to meet Wales today or in the astonished moments which followed his dramatic - and, to non-French eyes, hilarious - faux pas against Italy a fortnight ago. The diminutive wing with a giant-sized load of personal baggage had already been considered by many to be living on borrowed time, even before he nonchalantly dropped the ball in the in-goal area to the sound of gasps and guffaws across the rugby world.
Bernard Laporte, the France coach, proclaimed in midweek that one of the two wings who saw service against the Italians - Dominici and Vincent Clerc - would have been dropped if Pepito Elhorga of Agen had not gone lame with thigh and ankle injuries. It was a long way from the straightforward demotion of Dominici which some, including his former club coach at Stade Français, John Connolly, say is overdue.
The debate was fuelled further last weekend by a contretemps which blew up when Dominici and Stade were surprisingly beaten at home by Brive, a result that left the French champions well off the pace in the defence of their title. One of Brive's try-scorers, the full-back Nicolas le Roux, celebrated his score with an exaggerated goose-step behind the posts that seemed to mock Dominici's cock-up. Extracting le Michel? Moi? As the incident gained ample coverage on French television, Le Roux eventually appeared in the public prints to pronounce himself "désolé" at any offence caused. He insisted he had merely been imitating the try celebrations practised in sevens by the likes of Fiji's Waisale Serevi.
Whatever the case, it increased the attention on Dominici, whose last notable act in English eyes was to go to the sin-bin in the World Cup semi-final for a crude and impetuous trip on Jason Robinson. Even so, when Laporte named his team for Cardiff - and despite the coach having called Toulouse's in-form wing Cédric Heymans into his 22 - Dominici remained.
It could all be water off a duck's back to Dominici. He is, after all, the only current international rugby player known to have overcome a bout of clinical depression. In late 2000 he was admitted to hospital in Paris, where he was put in an induced sleep for 11 days to steady his ship after a breakdown brought on by a number of factors, including the recent death of a close friend.
Connolly, the Australian now at Bath whom Dominici came to describe as "a second father", recalls the dark days vividly. "Christophe was struggling for two or three weeks, up and down, breaking down, crying and not being able to sleep. We were playing Wasps in London [at the end of October 2000], and he was particularly low and really struggling to sleep. The manager had to go to him the night before the game, and he was basically an absolute mess. He did play, but he walked off and from that point went into hospital for about three months."
Dominici fought off his demons to reclaim his place for club and country, but Connolly's salient point is that he has not been the same player since - certainly not the sparkling threat who ripped apart the All Blacks in the World Cup a year before his collapse. "I found him great to coach," said Connolly, "he'd do whatever you'd want him to, with great skills. He may only weight 80 kilos, but he'd run into you as if he was 110. Prior to his breakdown, we were playing Wasps at home, and he scored two tries from full-back [in a 40-10 win]. He was just phenomenal. I've seen all of France's games this year, and I've seen a bit of Stade Français. Christophe is a world-class player when he gets going, but I'm not sure if he's ever quite got back to what he was."
The word in France is that Laporte, who as Stade Français coach in 1997 brought Dominici to Paris from Toulon, is allowing a personal bond of friendship, also involving Stade's wealthy owner, Max Guazzini, to cloud his judgement. As Connolly sees it, France under Laporte play with two big centres and a fair amount of kicking, so a wing needs to go looking for work.
"Christophe is a good broken-field runner," said Connolly, "but probably not the most instinctive winger, in terms of working off his wing." Dominici regularly popped up in midfield against the Italians, when he should have added to his 16 tries in 37 Tests, and never coughed up possession, other than the obvious occasion. But France's two tries scored on the left wing went to the back- rower Imanol Harinordoquy. Laporte's plan, and the test of whether he is right to stand by his man, continues in Cardiff this afternoon.Reuse content