RWC Special: France look to Galthié's lead

The onus is on the captain to provide his side's spark
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The Independent Online

It appears that not all dictators are unloved and as far as France is concerned anyone small in stature but regarded as a sporting titan acquires the moniker of Napoleon.

Thus it is that the latest inheritor of the mantle of France's greatest general, Fabien Galthié, tries to make his final bow for the Tricolores a more memorable one than Napoleon's humiliating retreat from Waterloo by delivering that elusive World Cup success.

"Galthié was born to lead," said France's coach Bernard Laporte (himself a former scrum-half for Bordeaux-Begles), who gave the 34-year-old the chance to play in his fourth World Cup in Australia and as captain to boot. "He's like an army general. He marshals his men in attack and defence. We always play better with him," added Laporte, whose strategy of late has been called into question as the euphoria of the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2002 has been wiped away by more defeats than victories this year.

Twice France have won the battles but not the war. First New Zealand in 1987 and then Australia in 1999 had too much for them in the final, after the French had exhausted themselves playing their most inspired rugby in the respective semi-finals which yielded unexpected victories over the Wallabies and the All Blacks.

Galthié aims to make it third time lucky, though he will have to overcome another of France's superstitions: "Jamais deux sans trois". When something happens twice it will happen a third time. "We have been Europe's most successful side overall in the competition [they were semi-finalists in 1995 when they were unluckily beaten by eventual winners South Africa] and it is about time we got our deserved reward," Galthié said.

"I know that sport has a habit of not delivering such a gift no matter how many times you knock on that final door but it is a dream of mine that I will end my career with the trophy in my hands. I remember bitterly the sensation of coming off the pitch after the match in 1995 having had a try disallowed which under the video rule would have been given today and who knows what would have happened against the All Blacks in the final given that they underperformed so badly against the Springboks?" added Galthié, who has 58 caps over 12 years.

The talismanic scrum-half has already achieved one of his ambitions by leading Stade Français to the French championship last season which was, surprisingly, his first domestic title. It ended years of drought at his previous side Colomiers, the poor neighbours of Toulouse who, to his joy, were the Parisian side's victims in the final.

This World Cup will be the first where Galthié is the uncontested No 1 choice having entered the 1995 World Cup as back-up to Aubin Hueber. By the end of that tournament Galthié had become the first-choice No 9 while Hueber was slipping back towards the anonymity whence he had arrived. In 1999 Galthié was out of favour with the coach Jean-Claude Skrela, who found the unimpressive Stephane Castaignède more to his taste. But again Galthié showed his fighting qualities and had regained top spot in time for the famous victory over the All Blacks and then the final.

"I have never shirked a challenge and it is when I am counted out that I am usually at my best," he said. "It has been a pretty yo-yo career but I have never given up hope and I play the game to win, whatever it takes."

Galthié, though, will face another of those challenges this time as France's slide in fortunes seems to have coincided with a personal loss in form. But the No 9 will need to plunge a long way in Australia to lose Napoleonesque aura.

None the less, from being the dynamo whose darting runs in the 2002 Six Nations caused havoc, he cut a disconsolate figure in this year's opener against England, trudging across the pitch, head down. Since then, the poor performance by his putative replacement, Dimitri Yachivili, in the 45-14 loss to England in their final World Cup warm-up match has once again placed the onus on Galthié to spark France into Cup contenders. And he seems to be ready for this last challenge of his career.

"We went into the 1999 World Cup similarly out of form and look where we ended up," he said. "This time we want to go one better and I will be leading from the front." Napoleon always liked his generals to be lucky; France will be hoping that the little emperor's latest sporting incarnation enjoys a similar fate in Australia.

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