How the caveman look turned Chabal into a rugby pin-up

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The Independent Online

As the champagne corks popped all over the French capital last Saturday night and World Cup fever spilled on to the Champs Elysées, it was impossible to move for partying Parisians. Some were hanging naked from lamp-posts waving tricolores, in celebration of France's unlikely quarter-final victory against New Zealand in Cardiff. Others were performing hakas on the bonnets of grid-locked, horn-honking cars. Everywhere you turned, though, there was one recurring image: the thick flowing locks and the shaggy beard. Someone had done a roaring trade in the familiar get-up of the national hero known as l'homme des Cavernes.

It was never like this on Merseyside during David Fairclough's time as the first great sporting supersub. Then again, the football striker whose walk-on contributions helped Liverpool win the European Cup thirty years ago was blessed with a modest mop of red hair rather than the caveman look that has made Sebastien Chabal such a cult figure in his homeland.

Chabal is not even a member of Bernard Laporte's first-choice XV; he started on the bench in the 20-18 quarter-final win against the All Blacks and will do so again when Les Bleus take on England in tomorrow night's semi-final in the Stade de France. And yet the 29-year-old replacement has become the symbol of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. For six weeks now, all over France, Chabal's face, and his neanderthal image, has stared down from billboards and magazine covers.

He has been voted the sexiest man in France and the sexiest player at the World Cup. Whenever the 6ft 3in, 18st No 8-turned lock emerges from the replacements' bench his countrymen and countrywomen rise to their feet and shout: "Mmmm... Chabal!" It is a reference to an advertisement for "100 per cent French beef", which carries the tag-line "Mmmm... Charal!"

It was different when Chabal made his first appearance in the blue of his country, against Scotland at Murrayfield in 2000. Back then, he was a clean-shaven, short-haired, fresh-faced 22-year-old. It all changed in 2004 when he left Bourgoin and joined Sale Sharks, following in the footsteps of Philippe Saint-Andre, the Cheshire club's director of rugby. At the same time, Chabal's wife, Annick, was awaiting the birth of their two daughters and he started growing his hair and his beard. By the time baby Lily Rose was born, Annick had become fond of the beard and the locks, which quickly became part of a cult image beloved by the Sale fans.

They started wearing T-shirts showing Chabal's face over a skull and crossbones and the slogan "Cha-bad to the bone". In turn, Chabal – who had longed for a move from Bourgoin to Toulouse and was not keen on the food or the climate in the north-west of England – settled contentedly into life in the Manchester area. The man from Valence, near Lyons, lives with his family at Cheadle Hume in Cheshire.

Chabal is known at Sale not as the Caveman or the Anaesthetist, as he was in France in his pre-bearded days (because of the effect of his uncompromising tackling), but as Seabass. He is also known as a No 8.

The apex of the back row is Chabal's favoured position, though Laporte has long been reluctant to use him there in the national team, preferring to play him at flanker or deploy him from the bench. When Chabal was neutralised at No 8 by England's back row in France's 26-18 defeat at Twickenham in March – being replaced by Imanol Harinordoquy six minutes into the second-half – it seemed that Laporte's reservations might even cost him a place in the World Cup squad.

That was until the Caveman clubbed his way back into contention with some bone-crunching hits on France's summer tour to New Zealand. Now he is used by Laporte as a second row destroyer from the bench. England, and the Stade de France, will be braced for the impact tomorrow night.