Hugh Godwin: Keys to No 10 rest in Skrela's hungry hands

A rising son was said to be keeping elite shirt warm - but a problem job is up for grabs
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The Independent Online

The popular view is that David Skrela is keeping the jersey warm for one or other of France's injured fly-halves. But the two men closest to the Stade Français No 10 believe that one more good performance today in the red-hot atmosphere of Croke Park will see him go on to the World Cup on home soil in the autumn.

"The keys are in his hands," said Fabien Galthié, the Stade Français coach and former France captain. "If he has another match like last week in Italy I feel he has a good chance for the World Cup," said Jean-Claude Skrela, David's dad.

You may think the paternal link precludes objectivity. And Galthié is more or less a family friend: he was in Colomiers' Under-13 team coached by Jean-Claude, the great former France flanker and now technical dir-ector of the French Rugby Federation, when the six-year-old David was scurrying around the field collecting stray rugby balls. But misplaced loyalty has nothing to do with the simple sporting logic that while Frédéric Michalak, Damien Traille and Benjamin Boyet are spectators nursing various injuries, Skrela is the man in possession. A self-confessed late developer, he has everything to gain in Dublin.

"The big crowd won't worry him," says Jean-Claude, speaking in his office at the national training centre just outside Paris. "He has done it before with Stade Français in front of crowds of 80,000 at Stade de France."

Skrela junior's career has, it seems, passed a tipping point this season. For the first time, as he approaches his 28th birthday, he is first choice at his club. He has finally learned to take the responsibility which is a fly-half's raison d'être. In days gone by Skrela was a utility back for Colomiers, Toulouse's second club, in their run to the 1999 European Cup final, and he had Galthié and the full-back Jean-Luc Sadourny to look up to. When he joined Stade in 2003, he found the more experienced Diego Dominguez and Alain Penaud selected ahead of him. Only recently has Skrela held sway, with the 21-year-old Lionel Beauxis - on the bench for France today - becoming understudy.

"I think he's stronger now in his mind," said Galthié, who was moving into coaching at Stade when Skrela arrived. "He knew that to improve he had to change, and he lost some weight last summer, about five kilos. He's not the man who runs a lot with the ball but he sets up breaks for others and he's a good defender. He doesn't ask too many questions, he just plays."

Jean-Claude Skrela, now 57, won 46 caps and a Grand Slam with France as a nuggety flanker nicknamed Apollo for his chiselled features. David inherited the cheekbones and the good looks but often during matches he wears a worried frown, like a young Tony Curtis chewing a sherbert lemon.

Against Italy in Rome a week ago, he could not have had a more comfortable reintroduction to Tests behind France's dominant forwards more than five years after his only previous cap. Skrela hit a post with an easy conversion but otherwise kicked five out of five and received smart service from another fringe candidate, Pierre Mignoni, at scrum-half. "I spoke to David afterwards," said Jean-Claude. "It wasn't the highest-quality match and a few little things went wrong with touch kicks. But he is a good goal-kicker, which could help his selection. He could play at inside- centre for France too." The team picked by Bernard Laporte for today's pivotal championship match shows five changes, but Skrela and Mignoni stayed in.

Jean-Claude played in the amateur era, and although he went on to coach Toulouse and France - the latter to Grand Slams in 1997 and 1998, and the 1999 World Cup final - he insisted that David complete his qualifications as a civil engineer before taking up professional rugby. "It was non-negotiable," said Jean-Claude. "Studies first, rugby second." After five years David graduated with a master's degree from Toulouse's Institut National des Sciences Appliquées. He is married with a daughter; his sister Gaëlle, 24, plays basketball professionally with Montpellier.

"David was always altruistic, a team player," said Galthié, France's scrum-half at the past four World Cups. "He has improved a lot in these last three years. He learned to kick from Dominguez and played centre outside Penaud, who was a good teacher. He is lucky with the injuries, but this is a real opportunity for him. The World Cup? He has the keys in his hands. He played a good game in Italy and he has to do the same in Ireland. Not to put too much pressure on himself, just do the same."

Fly-half is without doubt France's problem position. Boyet of Bourgoin is largely untried, and neither the brash but fallible Michalak or the statuesque Traille has ever convinced entirely. Galthié says it is too early for Beauxis - "he needs more experience to understand what is needed at a high level, in tactical appreciation and defensive organisation" - which brings us back to Skrela.

"I am satisfied that David has found confidence in himself, and other players have confidence in him," said Jean-Claude, who will be in Dublin to watch. "I remember him as a kid practising in the back garden, and following me on the touchline when I was coaching Toulouse. Am I proud of David? Yes, but proud would not be the right word.

"I am happy for him. It's funny to have the name Skrela in the French team again, but I think more than anything he is getting the results that his hard work deserves."

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