Handful and a mouthful of a No 8

France's forward find is making a name for himself in more ways than one. Alex Hayes explains
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The Independent Online

He only made his full international debut two weeks ago, but France's new No 8 is already being hailed as one of the big names of the future. In fact, as his friends take pleasure in teasing him, he joined the squad as Les Tricolores' biggest name. "Quite literally," Imanol Harinordoquy jokes, "and I'm not exactly the easiest to say either."

The notoriously capricious French commentators must feel that the 21-year-old is here to stay because they have worked extra hard at perfecting the pronunciation of his name: "Ari-nor-doki, Ari-nor-doki," you can imagine them practising in front of the mirror. No wonder. Harinordoquy's first cap, as a second-half substitute during last month's 37-33 defeat of Wales, suggested that he had the potential to make the grade. By the time the final whistle had blown against England, he had established himself as one of France's key components for the Six Nations and World Cup quests. Strong in the tackle, dominant in the scrum, imperial in the line-out, and electric in attack, Harinordoquy performed one of the best Test bows in France's rugby history. "He was outstanding," Jean-Pierre Rives said after the 20-15 win in Paris. "He was involved in everything that we did. That performance will take some beating."

It was a similar story last season for Harinordoquy's Scottish counterpart. Simon Taylor was a virtual unknown coming into the 2000-01 Six Nations campaign and yet ended up on the Lions tour in Australia, where injury forced him home early and robbed him of the chance to fight for a Test place. Like Harinordoquy, Taylor is tall (6ft 5in), solid (16 stone), but above all versatile. "Size is no longer the most important thing," he says. "Skill and tactical awareness and playing as a unit are the most vital factors. I want to be better, and I hope that playing with great players will improve me."

Taylor will undoubtedly make progress by taking part in the northern hemisphere's premier tournament, but his chances of honours are remote compared to Harinordoquy. "Scotland have had a couple of bad seasons and not done as well as we would have hoped," he says. "It's a new group and it will take a while to settle." France, for their part, are on the right track ahead of the 2003 World Cup. The key now is for them to prove that they really have learned the art of consistency. "England was great," Harinordoquy says, "but we know that the next game is key. In many ways, the Scotland match is more important than the England win, because we need to prove that we can play well on a regular basis."

Bernard Laporte, the French manager, has not given his players much time to bask in the glory of Paris. Perhaps he knows that his players need to keep their feet on the ground if they are to complete the first Grand Slam in the short history of the Six Nations. "The coach is right," Harinordoquy says, "and we are not planning to switch off. But, for now at least, I am still excited. The whole Stade de France experience will live with me forever."

Standing at 6ft 5in, the giant from Pau tends to tower over most of his opponents anyway. That has certainly been the case in France's last two Six Nations matches, when he has given Les Tricolores an added dimension. "He pops up everywhere and is like a libero for us," Jacques Brunel, the France assistant manager, says. "He is still only young and finding his feet, but he is a tremendous prospect for the future. Imanol deserves everything that is happening to him – he's a great kid."

Harinordoquy is a Basque from the small town of St Jean Pied de Port, some 30 miles south of Biarritz. His christian name is quite common on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, and refers to the famous Basque singer-storyteller Bertsolaritza, known simply as Imanol. His surname, meanwhile, is unusual but well-represented in the local phone directory. "We're a big family," he quips, before adding that he has never felt any divided loyalties between France and the Basque country. "I am French and Basque," Harinordoquy says. "My interest in the Euskera language and culture is in my heart, but there is no conflict. I am proud of both."

Strange as it sounds when you think of his performances, Harinordoquy only took up rugby at the age of 14. Unlike Taylor, who has been a rugby player since he could walk, Harinordoquy spent most of his youth dabbling in the traditional Basque sports of pelota and pala, before some friends encouraged him to put his imposing physique to "better use". He followed their advice and, following his maiden try against England, went home to celebrate. "Things are good at the moment," he agrees. "The mixture of youth and experience in the French squad is working well, because everyone feels the team can move forward. Older players give you the nous you need in the build up and during a game, while we new boys can inject raw energy."

Laporte has been clever in blooding several youngsters at the same time. As a result, the likes of Nicolas Jeanjean, Clement Poitrénaud and Damien Traille have immediately felt at ease with the seniors. "This coach has faith in youth," Harinordoquy says, "and his willingness to throw lots of us at the deep end has helped create a strong unit. Everyone involved feels that the side are moving in the right direction. So long as we can keep the focus in matches like the one against Scotland, there is no reason why we can't go on to make a name for ourselves." A catchy name, perhaps, like Harinordoquy.