Harinordoquy leads the restoration

When Laporte wanted to quit, one towering talent changed the coach's mind
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A vote of confidence may not carry the same frisson as "vive la révolution!", but France have chosen stability over upheaval following their World Cup semi-final exit to England. Bernard Laporte, having occupied the coach's throne since 1999, was contemplating an abdication. Imanol Harinordoquy was one of an influential group of players who persuaded him otherwise. "He wanted to go," said Harinordoquy. "I thought it was better for us that he stayed, as it's always better to work with continuity. I said that to him, and other players did too, and perhaps that's why he stayed."

So, Robespierre he ain't. A captain-in-waiting? That's more like it where Harinordoquy is concerned. It is only two years since his Test debut against Wales in Cardiff - and what a debut it was, running the gamut of the No 8's arts - but already the 23-year-old has matched his age in Tests. On the eve of his third Six Nations' Championship, he has been installed as the team's vice-captain, having previously led the Under-21s. "I can't say I'm an established player," said Harinordoquy. "There are too many good choices around who could take my place. It's easier, though, now, having more experience. I know the players, the staff, the coaches. I feel comfortable."

And Laporte, at the outset of a new four-year cycle which leads to hosting the 2007 World Cup on home soil, has strayed none too far from the comfort zone. The captain, in another recherché step following the retirement of Fabien Galthié, is Fabien Pelous, the lock from Toulouse who has had the job before.

"The World Cup is a long way from now," said Harinordoquy. "First of all we have to play this tournament, beginning with Ireland. Pelous, to begin with, is a good player. Secondly, he has been pack leader many times, so we are all used to him. Maybe he [Laporte] will try some of the younger players in other games." The following week, perhaps, against Italy? "Maybe, I don't know."

If that last comment showed Harinordoquy's diplomatic skills to be present and correct, he at least felt able to wax a little more lyrical on life after Galthié, whose No 9 jersey seems likely to be passed to Toulouse's Jean-Baptiste Elissalde. "As a No 8, maybe it will be easier for me now that Galthié has gone. I can take more responsibility at the scrum and in the game, without having him to help me or even to tell me what to do. I have played with Elissalde for France A, and he's dynamic, a quick runner, and he already knows Fredi Michalak from playing together at their club."

A couple of thirtysomethings tipped in the French press for exclusion - Christophe Dominici and Jean-Jacques Crenca - have been retained. Whichever pair from Brian Liebenberg, Damien Traille and Yannick Jauzion get the nod in the centre will offer the Irish a daunting physical as well as playmaking threat. To supplement the back row, the in-form Thomas Lièvremont of Biarritz is back after injury. But even if Laporte was not in conservative mood, there is little chance that he would break up the dream breakaway trio who delivered, against Scotland, one of the tries of the World Cup - Serge Betsen, Olivier Magne and Harinordoquy.

"For the moment, he's keeping this back row," said the last-named. "When I first got in the side, they were top players and I was the little boy. Now we've played about 20 games together, we complement each other and there's a good feeling between us. That try against Scotland was a great memory. Serge is very good in defence, and not too bad in attack! And Olivier is fantastic in attack. When you play with them, at any moment there is a chance of doing something different."

Proud Basque that he is, Harinordoquy has thus far been held fast in France's south-west, his heritage reflected in a couple of his personal sponsors: Jambon de Bayonne (a regional version of cured ham) and Seat, the Spanish car firm. But his club contract with Pau is up in the summer, and a move is on the cards. His agent, Karine Rossignuex, jokes that he would not like Paris - too far from home - but any self-respecting English side would love to have him, even if Biarritz is the more likely destination, on geographical grounds.

The man himself declined to comment - the transfer window is the last month of the season - but otherwise appeared relaxed and confident in his new role, notwithstanding the slightly unnerving habit of shouting "What?" at each hesitation in our bilingual conversation. "Being vice-captain is new," he said, "but at the same time if Laporte wants to integrate me in the team, it's natural. I'm very happy to do it."

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