Pelous the private on parade

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The Independent Online

Fabien Pelous says he has more bad memories of Twickenham than good, but it must be a close-run thing. The captain of Toulouse and France has played at England's HQ five times, and two of them rank among the greatest Gallic victories of the modern era. This is a man with a penchant for keeping things in perspective.

"The worst was in 2001, when we lost heavily to England," Pelous recalled on Friday, as he and his Wasps counterpart, Lawrence Dallaglio, attended the formal announcement of this afternoon's teams. "And of course the best was in 1999, when we beat New Zealand here in the World Cup." With a bit more thought, Pelous might have come up with France's 23-20 comeback win on his Twickenham debut in 1997 - or perhaps he was being polite to Dallaglio who, then as now, was positioned in the home team's pack.

Pelous is a dab hand at deflecting credit. He has accumulated a French record for a forward of 91 Test caps - third overall, behind Philippe Sella and Serge Blanco - without yet earning the adulation accorded in England to a Martin Johnson or even a Dallaglio. This season, together with the flanker Olivier Magne, Pelous joined a mightily exclusive quartet of Englishmen - Cyril Lowe, Willie Davies and Ronnie Cove-Smith in the early part of the 20th century, and Jason Leonard - in winning his fourth Grand Slam. "Rugby is my métier, but it is also my passion," Pelous says. His quiet demeanour makes it an unconvincing statement.

Pelous grew up quickly, in every sense. By the age of 12 he was easily the tallest lad at school, where they only played football, and was naturally a centre-half until a friend suggested they pop along to the local rugby club. Halfway between his 16th and 17th birthdays, Pelous turned out for Saverdun in a third division match. It was the type of fixture where you punched first and asked questions later, and his opposite number was Claude Spanghéro, one half of the formidable set of Test-playing brothers in the 1970s.

Spanghéro insisted on one rule: "Nobody touch the young boy." He probably did all France a favour. Within a year, Pelous had stepped up a couple of levels with Graulhet; in 1993 he joined Dax; and in 1997 he more than quadrupled his earnings with Toulouse.

Friday's formalities included a presentation to Pelous of a cap to mark his 50th Heineken Cup appearance. "It's sunny outside, so it's useful," he quipped. Doing the honours was Jean-Pierre Lux, a 47-Test France threequarter in his day, and now the chairman of European Rugby Cup.

It was Lux who, as chairman of Dax, signed Pelous from Graulhet and delighted in the club's progress to the Heineken quarter-finals in 1997. "As a young man he was the same as he is now," said Lux. "A good line-out jumper, a good tackler and handler of the ball, able to play No 8 and lock. I'd say Fabien is different to Johnson or Dallaglio, more quiet and reserved. Then again, he was the same as Lawrence in that he gave up the French captaincy then got it back again. If Fabien remains captain of France until the World Cup, then everybody will talk about him as one of the great players."

Pelous, at 30 a year younger than Dallaglio, certainly intends to be playing in 2007, but, typically, he leaves the captaincy question to others. He first had the role with France in 1997, and has swapped it back and forth with Abdel Benazzi, Raphaël Ibañez and Fabien Galthié, regaining it from the latter for this year's Grand Slam campaign. Toulouse's long-serving coach, Guy Novès, likes to refer to his side as having two skippers - Pelous and the former France wing Emile Ntamack. But it will be the 6ft 6in lock who goes up for the cup if Dallaglio's Wasps bend the knee.

"Sentiment doesn't enter it with Fabien," said Novès on Friday. "Whether he is with Toulouse or France, it makes no difference. He is a leader. In the rigour he puts into everything he does, he is an example to the rest in training and on the pitch. That's why we have two captains. Emile represents the club completely, he is the heart of Stade Toulousain. Fabien represents the professionalism."

The testimonies are more respectful than loving. Pelous, a qualified physiotherapist who is married with a young son, values his privacy. He was a country boy in the village of Gibel, south of Toulouse. His father is a farm labourer; his mother works in a factory.

The parents' greatest pride is that they put each of their children through university - Fabien's brother is an architect and his sister a PE teacher. "He's very serious," said Trevor Brennan, the Irishman who will partner Pelous in the second row this afternoon. "But he is someone we know we can always count on."