French expect mane man to play a blinder

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The Independent Online

Some time this afternoon, Sébastien Chabal will get the ball in his hands and his devoted fans will let out a Neanderthal roar in the bearded wonder's honour. Described by his club coach as the most charismatic player on the planet, he will not beat England on his own, but nor is he just a pantomime villain in a distracting sideshow as France seek a fifth Six Nations title in eight years.

France rattled into London on the Eurostar when a freight train might have been more apt to carry their gargantuan pack. Chabal has been shifted to the blindside flank after playing at lock (if at all) for most of Marc Lièvremont's 14-month tenure as coach.

Jérôme Thion and Lionel Nallet form the second row, while the restored Sylvain Marconnet – who referred to his "hate" before he rumbled down the platform in Paris – will anchor the front row.

"Sébastien came to us as a blindside flanker in 2004 and that's where he'll play today," said Kingsley Jones, director of rugby at Sale Sharks, who has worked with Chabal these past five seasons. "He is a major ball-carrier for France in whatever position, so it's not too much of a change."

Chabal battered his way to a match-winning try as France won at Twickenham in a 2007 World Cup warm-up, and his fans' chants of "Uummmm!" were a humorous feature of the French-hosted tournament. The trouble with the 31-year-old has always been his coaches saying: "Um, what's his best position?"

Jones, whose father, Phil, nurtured the teenaged Jonah Lomu, says Chabal ranks alongside the giant All Black and Lawrence Dallaglio for "charisma and a presence on the field. We've seen it on tour in France, cameras following him everywhere. He's a celebrity, ahead of Thierry Henry and almost every other sportsperson in France". He is currently mulling over lucrative offers from Brive, Racing Métro and Toulon.

As to the best position for the man with the mighty mane, it's horses for courses. "This looks like the best balance in France's back row so far," said Jones. "[Thierry] Dusautoir will be the openside, roaming around the field, making tackles and doing a lot of work.

"There's more power with Sébastien probably scrummaging on the tighthead. All the props tell me they feel him pushing. But England know how to scrum and it will be a big challenge for France."

The cost of Chabal's charges is he takes a breather after the breakdown. As the Bath prop David Flatman put it: "France let him rest, then let him crush." Jones said: "Everyone reminds us of Paul O'Connell and Munster smashing Chabal a few years ago. It was a restart and England can try the same thing, and if they get it right, the crowd will love it and it's a big statement.

"But there is a risk with that. If England don't kick well to Chabal, he's one of the fastest forwards in the world, and if you multiply that by his power – well, it's physics, isn't it? He takes some stopping."

France's hopes rest on winning today and in Italy next week and Ireland losing to Wales. England got the better of Les Bleus in the previous World Cup and the 2008 Six Nations by kicking often and deep behind a solid pack. The thought of France countering the latter and dealing more effectively with the former might turn an Englishman's blue blood cold.

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