'Cantona of French rugby' keen to get his kicks again

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The Independent Online

At the risk of borrowing from football at the time rugby is trying to distance itself from berating referees and cheating the opposition, Mathieu Bastareaud is the Eric Cantona of the oval-ball game. Shamed by the extraordinary affair of his self-invented mugging on France's tour to New Zealand last summer, he has been doing community service and rebuilding his career.

It was June 2009 and 12 months on from the sexual hanky-panky in Auckland which landed England players in trouble when Bastareaud – unusually large for a centre three-quarter at 110kgs – had a night out in Wellington and wound up with bruises and a cut on his face. First he claimed he had been attacked in the street. Then he said he'd fallen on a bedside table. It was never adequately explained whether Bastareaud was caught in flagrante delicto or simply on the point of vino collapso, but he caused a full-scale diplomatic row which dragged in two scandalised prime ministers: one in New Zealand, one in France.

Just as Cantona was ordered to engage in community service after his Crystal Palace kung fu-kick, so Bastareaud was handed down 18 stints of the French equivalent. He has been coaching kids at a rugby academy near Stade de France, where France hope to seal this season's Six Nations Championship by beating England on 20 March. It is also home to Bastareaud's club, Stade Français, for whom he has been showing the kind of form which does not trouble the police. Earlier this month he blasted past five Biarritz defenders for a try which prompted the opposition captain, Jérôme Thion, to say: "There is no other player in France with Mathieu's power."

Marc Lièvremont, the France coach, dropped Bastareaud for the autumn Tests but now he's back. Still only 21, he has gone through a reported bout of depression – one account had him attempting suicide in the Seine – without a word to the media. Stade's doctor and psychologist have been close companions. "To see him put his stamp on an opponent gives the whole team a lift," said Stade's flanker Antoine Burban. And maybe for France again too.

France: One to watch

Romain Millo-Chluski With France cursing the loss of human fireball prop Fabien Barcella, we look to Millo-Chluski of Toulouse to stoke the engine room. The lumpen lock missed Les Blues' debacle at Twickenham last year with a dodgy achilles tendon but may form a formidable second row with Lionel Nallet.

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