Jauzion the genius at France's heart

World's best backs are not all New Zealanders - even they covet the Toulouse playmaker

In vino veritas, the saying goes, but Bernard Laporte was on nothing stronger than mineral water when he let slip a revealing statement during the week. Asked to comment on the return from injury of Brian O'Driscoll, the France coach said: "Of course O'Driscoll is important to Ireland, just as Wilkinson is to England, and Jauzion to France."

Whereas Jonny Wilkinson is hors de combat for the third Six Nations' Championship in a row, the Toulouse centre Yannick Jauzion - for it was he who popped into Laporte's consciousness at a split-second's notice - is fit and firing for the Championship favourites.

Jauzion's name sprang as easily to mind when his peers voted him the French league player and international player of 2005. All around the world - yes, even in New Zealand - more pundits than not had him at No 12 or 13 in their team of the year. Still, Laporte might have mentioned Frédéric Michalak, the cheeky Toulouse fly-half, or Fabien Pelous, the Toulouse second-row and France captain, or Yannick Nyanga, the lithe and livewire Toulouse flanker... Hang on, there appears to be a pattern developing. Over to you, Bernard.

"We have so many players from Toulouse because they all have a complicity, an understanding, from playing with each other," said Laporte during the Six Nations launch at the Hurlingham Club. "And, of course, they are also generally the best players, because Toulouse and Stade Français tend to take all the best players."

The place Toulouse took Jauzion from in 2002 was not far away: Colomiers, the city's second club, out in the suburbs. Then, he was a gawky student of agricultural engineering playing part-time and absorbing the wisdom of Colomiers' Test backs Fabien Galthié and Jean- Luc Sadourny. His hands told of teenaged toil on the Jauzion family farm; great gnarled shovels you might expect on a No 8 or a lock forward but not on a midfielder whose deft passes, short and long, go astray less often than a homing pigeon with satellite navigation. Since joining Toulouse, Jauzion has won the Heineken Cup twice, the Grand Slam once and become a mainstay for his country.

For first-hand testimony of his flowering from uncertain tiro to 27-year-old world leader, ask Stuart Abbott, the Wasps and England centre."I think over the last two years he has improved a hell of a lot," said Abbott, a centre from the same school of intuition who first went toe to toe with Jauzion in a World Cup warm-up at Twickenham in September 2003. "What makes him such a good player is that he's quite big for a centre - quite tall - but he stays on his feet so well to offload and get his pass away. He can pass off left and right as well as having a good boot, and he just reads the game so well. He never dies with the ball." It could be a motto written on the wall at Toulouse's bespoke training HQ at the Stade Ernest Wallon - "Never die with the ball".

Brian Ashton, the doyen of English backs coaches, worked there in the early 1980s, and he sees in Jauzion and the other red-jerseyed cavaliers a set of simple but enduring virtues. "Toulouse played then as they do now," said Ashton. "Head up, pass before contact... absolutely phenomenal. It's rugby on a totally different level to what anyone else plays, even the All Blacks, who play in a different way." It is a particular bugbear of Ashton's that popular opinion in England considers big centres and an ability to pass as mutually exclusive. The French have their cake and eat it, as Marie Antoinette almost said, with the 6ft 4in Jauzion.

At club level Abbott has faced him three times, most recently in Toulouse in the Heineken Cup a fortnight ago. "He seems like a really nice guy," Abbott said. "Nothing really fazes him, he's pretty chilled out. Toulouse used Florian Fritz mainly at outside-centre, and I think France will use them together. In the past Jauzion has played at 13 for France, but I definitely think he's more of a threat at 12 - to get the ball in his hands more. Fritz is probably the quicker of the two, not that Jauzion is slow. That's the thing with the Toulouse back-line: they're all pretty rapid, from nine to 15, which makes them so dangerous."

The Toulouse director of rugby, Jean-Luc Brumont, speaks of Jauzion as "a clever boy, open-minded and able to talk on any subject. Our coaches had to work hard with him because, for a physical player like him, it's difficult to be good when you're young. Every day he's improving, and he's not finished yet: he'll be better by the time of next year's World Cup."

And if that last statement strikes fear into the hearts of the Scots next week and any subsequent opponents desperate to cut the giant down to size, Abbott offers words of cautious encour-agement. "In Toulouse we had Joe Worsley, a flanker, marking Jauzion on the inside-centre channel off the line-out, to try and stop the go-forward. And to be fair, Joe did a really good job. Jauzion didn't feature as much, because of that, I think.

"But there's no doubt that in the last Six Nations he really proved himself as one of the best in the world. Is it best to tackle him high or low? Just try and get him before he has too much of a run-up."

FOUR TO MAKE A BIG IMPRESSION IN SIX NATIONS

Steve Thompson, England

Northampton find life difficult in the Guinness Premiership, but Thompson remains the outstanding hooker-cum-multi-purpose forward in the country. Appears to have banished the yips from his line-out throwing and is an indispensable member of England's tight five.

Frédéric Michalak, France

Ultimately had a disappointing World Cup when he was outplayed by Jonny Wilkinson, but has the ability to become the most influential stand-off in the Six Nations. Showed a touch of genius in creating the memorable try that did for Wasps in their Heineken Cup pool game in Toulouse.

Dwayne Peel, Wales

In build and stature has the appearance of a jockey, but looks can be deceiving. Peel and Stephen Jones were the Lions' first-choice half-backs in New Zealand, and Wales would be lost without them. On occasions the scrum-half's pace and strength even caused problems for the All Blacks' back row.

Shane Horgan, Ireland

A rumbustious figure at centre or wing, Horgan's rise has been at the pace of a supertanker, but he is now making an impression on a regular basis. Brian O'Driscoll, the Lions captain, thought much more use should have been made of him on the summer tour.

MIDDLE MAN: ANATOMY OF A PERFECT CENTRE

Personality

Jauzion put his rugby career on hold while studying for his degree in agricultural engineering. The quietly mannered Frenchman hopes one day to return to running the family farm.

Upper body

Jauzion's strength in this area is "quite phenomenal" according to Ieuan Evans, the former Wales wing and captain. "I'm not sure I've ever seen a stronger centre play international rugby," said Evans. "He would make a hell of a prop as well!"

Spatial awareness

In the rough and tumble of a Test match midfield, thinking time is at a premium. He sees what is "on" and has the ability to make it happen whether his opposite number likes it or not.

Hands

Jauzion delivers equally telling passes to left and right. Watch how he stays upright while taking a tackle, and gets the ball away to keep a move going while two or three opponents try to bring him down.

Core stability

Jauzion used to be a keen judo player and still enjoys his skiing, both of which are sports that combine muscle with subtlety, just like his hero, the great French centre Philippe Sella.

Kicking

Toulouse have France's half-backs Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Frédéric Michalak to do their goal-kicking, but for field position they toss it to Jauzion. Touch-finders fly long and accurately from his right boot.

Tim Glover

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