Dreaming of French victory in the name of the father

David Skrela was always destined to follow his father, now technical director of French rugby, into action for Les Bleus as Paul Newman in Paris discovered
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The Independent Online

French rugby's national technical director was a proud man at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome on Saturday. In their opening match in this season's Six Nations' Championship, France swept Italy aside, their 39-3 victory full of power, passion and flair.

However, as Jean-Claude Skrela saluted his fellow countrymen, his thumbs-up sign was directed principally at one man. Life as the son of one of the most famous men ever to pull on a French rugby shirt has never been easy, but 27-year-old David Skrela proved with his display at outside half that he has come of age.

Père et fils talked in the dressing room after the match. "I think he was proud of what I'd done," David said. "He'd come to see me in my room in the morning before the game. He told me to keep my head, to play as if I was playing for my club and to keep calm. I tried to do everything he said." Proof of the quality of Skrela's performance came with Bernard Laporte's announcement of his team for this Sunday's visit to Ireland, with Skrela and Pierre Mignoni, the surprise choices at outside half and scrum-half respectively, retaining their places. Laporte says that nine of the 30 places in the home squad for this autumn's World Cup are up for grabs and has promised every member of his 40-man Six Nations party a game in the current competition.

Skrela and Mignoni are the 28th half-back pairing of Laporte's eight-year reign. Hell will probably freeze over before the coach stops tinkering with his line-up, but Skrela - possibly encouraged by the blanket of snow that covered the outside pitches here at the national rugby centre at Marcoussis as he looked ahead to this weekend - says that such matters do not concern him.

He knows he owes his present chance to injuries suffered by those ahead of him in the queue to fill the No 10 shirt for France's opening World Cup game in seven months' time. Frédéric Michalak, generally Laporte's first choice, will be out for another three months following knee surgery, Damien Traille has a thigh problem and Benjamin Boyet will miss the whole of the Six Nations with a knee cartilage injury. Nevertheless, others will also be given their chance, including Skrela's Stade Français understudy, the hugely talented 21-year-old Lionel Beauxis.

"I don't think especially about Michalak," Skrela said. "The rest of us know that he's ahead of us. He's proved that he can play at international level. I'm starting from the very bottom. I have everything to prove. I know the train's passing through and I mustn't miss it. If I can get on board and get in the first carriage, I'll be happy. I'm not really thinking much about the World Cup. Last Saturday was only my second international. I can't think too far ahead."

Skrela had nearly six years to plan for his second international appearance. His previous cap was earned in 2001 in a 37-12 defeat in Wellington against New Zealand. It has not been an easy ride back to the top. Skrela was not even certain of his club place at the start of the season and for years seemed destined to be a footnote to his father's career.

Jean-Claude Skrela, whose office is just down the corridor at Marcoussis, formed a brilliant back-row partnership in the 1970s alongside Jean-Pierre Rives and Jean-Pierre Bastiat. The son of Polish refugees, he went on to coach Stade Toulousain, the club where he made his name, and the French national team, helping to guideLes Bleus to the final of the 1999 World Cup.

"When I was about six, my father was coach at Toulouse and I used to be in charge of the bucket of sand for the goal-kickers," David said. "But my father never coached me. When I was small he never talked about rugby at home. It was only after I started playing seriously that he started saying what he thought I was doing right and wrong."

Skrela Jnr, who was born a year after the end of his father's international career and never saw him play, joined US Colomiers, the second team in the Toulouse area, rather than the aristocrats of Stade Toulousain. He started in the back row before switching to outside half.

"My father set up the rugby school at Colomiers," Skrela explained. "The family home was a bit closer to Colomiers than to Toulouse. Some of my friends joined Colomiers, so it seemed the natural thing to do. There's a huge rivalry with Toulouse, so there was never a question of swapping. Besides, in those days Colomiers often got the better of Toulouse at junior level."

The family connection did not help at first. "People would say: 'Look, he's getting in the team just because he's Jean-Claude Skrela's son.' Because of that I always felt I had to work harder than others to justify my place. I felt that until I was about 20, but by then I think I'd proved myself."

Although Colomiers have been in sharp decline recently, they were runners-up in the French championship in 2000 and lost to Ulster in the final of the Heineken Cup in 1999, when the English and leading Welsh clubs boycotted the competition. Skrela's team-mates included two French internationals in Fabien Galthié, now his coach at Stade Français, and Jean-Luc Sadourny.

He feels that he did not become "100 per cent professional" until he finished his engineering degree and left Colomiers for Paris four years ago. He believes the standard of rugby at Stade Français has helped his game. His kicking has improved, he reads the game well, has a safe pair of hands, is calm under pressure and believes he is better technically. He also considers that 27 or 28 is an age where outside halves reach their maturity.

"Coming to Paris meant distancing myself from my family and my friends. I had to fight to earn my place in the team because I've had Diego Dominguez, Alain Penaud and now Lionel Beauxis competing for my position. I've left nothing to chance and that's paid off."

Galthié has been a major influence. "He pushed me to change my game," Skrela said. "I've always liked to tackle and to go into the rucks but Fabien taught me that an outside half and goal-kicker has to keep his lucidity and must not try to do too many things."

Under encouragement from Galthie, Skrela lost 5 kilos last year. "I've got a tendency to put on weight," he said. "I used to be lazy, but last summer I did a lot of physical work while I was on holiday in Corsica. Until you lose weight you don't appreciate the benefits that can bring. I've felt much livelier and it's helped me to last the distance in matches, rather than to be effective only for an hour."

Skrela admits he will never have the vivacité of Michalak or the pure speed of Damien Traille, but he knows he has a kicking game that few can rival.

At 6ft 3in he is tall for an outside half. Critics say he lacks flair, but he rejects the suggestion that the modern-day trend towards outside halves in the mould of quarterbacks, rehearsing pre-planned moves, suits his game.

"At the outset it might be more structured and from set plays you might have rehearsed lines of attack, but that doesn't last for long," he said. "You quickly have to adjust to what's happening in front of you - to what your forwards are doing, to what the opposition are doing."

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