The frost was so thick on the fields of France's swish national rugby centre here at Marcoussis yesterday that Bernard Laporte's men had to train on a synthetic pitch. The only surprise was that the hot air circulating around the national game had not thawed out the playing surfaces.
The 2007 World Cup is more than 19 months away, but much of the talk here is of le mondial rather than the Six Nations Championship, in which France open their campaign in Scotland on Sunday. This is not even the last Six Nations before next year's meeting of the global clans, but in some eyes it appears to be viewed as little more than a warm-up for the main event. The French federation would no doubt reject any such suggestion, but the banner that greets players and visitors alike as they enter their headquarters looks ahead not to the next seven weeks but to events beginning on 7 September 2007 at the Stade de France.
The Tricolores are fortunate to have a captain whose feet usually leave the ground only when his 17-stone frame is towering above a line-out. As Fabien Pelous prepares for his 11th annual showdown with Europe's finest, he is all too aware of the dangers of looking too far ahead, despite the prospect of leading his country into the World Cup on home territory and of easing some of his own painful memories. Pelous, who is only nine short of Philippe Sella's French record of 111 caps, played in both the 1999 final defeat against Australia and in the semi-final surrender to England four years ago.
"People are constantly talking about the World Cup," Pelous said here yesterday. "It's a good thing in one way, but we have a tournament to prepare for now. The World Cup will be an enormous event and it's natural that people should talk about it, but I find that absolutely everything discussed here is in reference to the World Cup.
"The best way to prepare for the World Cup is to concentrate on the Six Nations and play well in it. We're only rugby players. We only have small brains. We need to think only about the next match, not what lies beyond.
"It does concern me that there will be too much pressure on us next year. We have to try to relieve it, though I don't know how.
"We talk a lot about the World Cup in the French team. Of course the World Cup is hugely significant for French rugby, but what's most important is that we perform well when it actually comes around. To do that we have to try not to play under too much pressure. We must remember that it's still 18 months away and that the World Cup isn't the only thing that counts."
Pelous found his own way of escaping the spotlight when he was suspended for nine weeks after attempting to rearrange Brendan Cannon's features with his elbow while playing Australia at Marseilles in November. It is not a moment of which the 32-year-old lock is proud - it was "a stupid and entirely instinctive gesture", he said - and he refuses to see the benefits of his break.
"I can't look on it as a positive," he said. "It was an enforced lay-off. I just had to keep myself fit. Toulouse had to do without me for six weeks, so I'm sure they didn't regard it as a good thing. Whether it might have done France any good I suppose we'll see this weekend."
Pelous learned his rugby in an era when violence was an accepted - and perhaps encouraged - part of the game, particularly in his native south-west France. It is no surprise that one of the players with whom he bears the strongest comparison is another international captain who led from the second row by deed rather than word and whose own disciplinary record was far from unblemished.
"Fabien is our Martin Johnson," Jo Maso, France's team manager, said yesterday. "They are very similar. Fabien's very positive, but at the same time he never hides from the truth in his dealings with any of the players. In a match he's a natural leader because he's a fighter. And he's not someone who seeks media attention away from the game.
"He can lead us in the World Cup in the way that Johnson led England. Fabien knew that he would have to work harder than ever on his fitness because of his age and he's done that. He set himself the target of captaining France in the World Cup in front of our own supporters. At the same time he knows that if his form drops he will lose his place."
Pelous underlines that point. "I'm still not counting on anything," he said. "I hope I'll be there and that's what I'm aiming at, but a lot can happen between now and the World Cup."
Did he think his last opportunity of global glory had passed him by on that rainy evening in Sydney three years ago? "Yes. At my age I thought my chance had gone. I said to myself that it would be difficult to keep going at the highest level as far as 2007. However, I knew that if I worked hard, if I gave myself the chance, it might still happen." And the comparison with Johnson? "Well I hope it all ends up for me the way it did for him. I hope that I'm like him. He had great charisma and knew how to lead his troops. On top of that he was an excellent player. It's flattering to be compared with him."
The cross-Channel similarities with Clive Woodward's world champions do not end with the captains. Although Laporte seemed uncertain of his best line-up in the first two years after the World Cup, his side has steadily taken shape over the past 12 months and is full of experience. Autumn victories over South Africa and Australia confirmed their progress and it is no surprise that France are odds-on favourites to win their fifth Grand Slam in nine years (not to mention second favourites behind New Zealand for the World Cup).
Even those who have cemented their places only recently, like the half-backs Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Frédéric Michalak, are by no means newcomers. Yannick Nyanga, with 22 caps, is the least experienced member of this weekend's team, seven of whom played in the 2003 semi-final against England (who now have only three survivors).
"We're a group of players whose performances are improving and who are getting to know each other better," Pelous said. "The newer players have been part of the group for a year or two. They've proved themselves at international level and they've gradually established themselves. They've become more and more at home with the way we do things."
Last year France were slow out of their starting blocks in the opening round and trailed Scotland 9-0 early in the second half in Paris before winning 16-9. Pelous, however, refuses to see this Sunday's match as a potential pitfall. "I never see matches as pitfalls," he said. "We must make sure that we're never surprised by the opposition. Whoever we're facing we have to impose our game. We have to be the team asking the questions." Such as: can the French rugby world contain its excitement for the next 583 days?Reuse content