Sébastien Chabal: Sea Bass swims with the Sharks

Having turned down Toulouse for a place where the food is terrible and the weather appalling, the back-row marauder Sébastien Chabal tells Paul Newman about his unlikely love affair with life in greater Manchester
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"No contest" is a phrase often associated with Sébastien Chabal, the bearded behemoth whose rampaging runs through Sale Sharks' opponents attracted the interest of Toulouse last year. The Stadistes are used to picking any dish they want from the menu, but at 6ft 2in and more than 16st Chabal is also accustomed to getting his own way in the kitchen. He turned up his nose at the cassoulet and ordered three more years of Lancashire hotpot.

Given Chabal's views on the local cuisine - more of which later - that may not be the most appropriate analogy. The decision to stay at Sale was made from the heart and the head rather than the stomach. The heart said Sale and their supporters had welcomed him into their arms as one of their own. The head said that he was playing the best rugby of his life and that Philippe Saint-André, the French coach who had brought him here, was on the brink of a major breakthrough.

"Toulouse were too late," Chabal said during a break this week at Sale's Stockport training ground. "When I left Bourgoin two years ago, they were the club I wanted to join, but nobody contacted me. By the time they did approach me last year I'd made my mark here and Sale were going well. I couldn't be sure how it would be for me at Toulouse and, although Sale have yet to establish themselves for any sustained period as one of the best teams in England and Europe, that's what I believe Philippe is in the process of achieving.

"The supporters were a factor too. They adopted me immediately and love me here. For someone who had come from France, not sure where he was going, to be welcomed so quickly has given me huge pleasure."

The 28-year-old No 8's appearance belies his character. He has huge arms and hands - Thomas Castaignède jokes that he does not have to bend down to touch the soles of his feet - yet the warmest of handshakes. A hearty laugh regularly rises up from beneath the shaggy beard. Nicknamed "The Anaesthetist" in France because of the impact of his tackles, he was christened "Sea Bass" at Sale to distinguish him from Sébastien Bruno, another of Saint-André's early recruits.

Sale fans wear T-shirts showing Chabal's face over a skull and crossbones and the slogan "Cha-bad to the bone" (after a song by George Thorogood and the Destroyers). His fearsome tackling and direct running have been key factors in Sale's emergence as major contenders. They returned to the top of the Guinness Premiership on Monday with their first League victory at Bath for nearly eight years and are unbeaten in the Heineken Cup.

Edgeley Park is regularly filled to its 10,600 capacity as the Sharks have built on the promise of Saint-André's first season, when they won the European Challenge Cup and finished third in the League, losing to Wasps in the championship semi-finals. Jason Robinson, Charlie Hodgson, Mark Cueto and company had been a match for anyone in the backs, but under Saint-André Sale's forwards have also become a formidable unit, with Chabal their linchpin.

Chabal knew Saint-André from their time together at Bourgoin. "I'd decided I wanted to leave Bourgoin and I knew how ambitious Philippe was," Chabal said. "I knew Sale had fabulous backs, but their forwards weren't quite of the same quality. That's why Philippe recruited Sébastien Bruno and myself. The crowd probably took to me because they liked my style of game. I don't think Sale had had a player like me for a very long time.

"Last season we were a team under construction. There was a new coaching staff and a lot of new players. We had to learn how to play together. Three or four more new quality players have come in this year. Daniel Larrechea has strengthened the backs. Elvis Seveali'i and Mark Taylor are new in the centre. Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe has played more in the pack.

"At the start of the season we talked about our goals and the championship was one of them. The minimum we wanted was a top-four finish. We also wanted to get through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. That's something the club has never done before. So far things have been going well in a league where every team has a chance of beating anyone else. The standards are very high.

"I think we've got a good balance between the backs and the forwards. Take a game like the one at Bath. We knew we had to be very strong up front. We were very solid and we were able to supply the ball for our threequarters to make their class tell. Sale have always been known for the quality of their backs and this team is in the best traditions of the club. We play with 'French flair'. We have real competition for places. Even when we have people injured or away for internationals, very good players can come in and we won't be fielding a weakened team."

Nevertheless, the demands of the Six Nations will provide a huge test. One of Sale's two League defeats was in November away to tomorrow's opponents, Bristol, when Chabal was among several missing internationals.

He has won 24 caps, mostly from the bench and at flanker rather than his favoured No 8. Considering Chabal's mighty club performances, Bernard Laporte's ambivalence is a mystery. The France coach selected him - at flanker - for last season's Six Nations match at Twickenham but took him off early in the second half. He came on with five minutes remaining against Australia in November and started only one of the autumn internationals, against Tonga. At last given a chance at No 8, he suffered an elbow injury after 10 minutes. His replacement, Thomas Lièvremont, who had shone against Australia, promptly scored the Tricolores' first try.

At the 2003 World Cup, where he played a peripheral role, there were reports of a falling-out with Laporte, though Chabal denies this and says the coach accepts that he was misquoted. Has he told Laporte that he would prefer to play at No 8?

"No. I believe that when you're picked for your national team you should be happy to play wherever the coach wants you to play. It's his decision. It's not up to me as a player to say whether or where I should be playing." He tries not to think too much about next year's World Cup in France. "Obviously, it's an ambition to be there, but before that I have to try to play regularly for the national team, to get established in the side." Is he disappointed not to have won more caps?

"Of course, though there are plenty of players who would love to have 24 caps and to have played in a World Cup. My first international was in 2000. Jason White [Chabal's Sale colleague] made his debut for Scotland in the same year. He's played regularly and he's approaching 50 caps. Looking back, I think I was too young when I made my debut. I wasn't ready. I was in my second season at Bourgoin and I'd only been playing rugby for five years."

Chabal grew up in Valence, south of Lyon on the river Rhône. His family had no interest in sport and he took up rugby only at 16. Blessed with natural strength (which he traces back to a great grandfather of similar build), Chabal made rapid progress and soon left his job as a mechanic to play for Bourgoin.

How does playing in England compare with France? "The players here are better prepared, more athletic. We do a lot more gym work than in France. The backs generally play less spontaneous rugby than the French. It's more predictable. The English game probably suits me better because it's more direct, though I don't necessarily prefer one style over the other."

Chabal's wife, having given birth to their baby daughter, joined him in England last year. He says they are adapting to life here and enjoying it, though there are aspects of France they miss.

"It's a very different way of life. There's no getting away from that. The weather's bad. It rains a lot. Above all, I find the food bizarre. I hardly ever eat English food. My wife and I share the cooking at home. I cook lasagne, boeuf bourguignon, anything really. And when we go out we look for French restaurants. I don't think much of the English food I have tried. I certainly don't like fish and chips! It's all a question of taste, I suppose. I know the English think it's bizarre we eat snails and frogs' legs and steak tartare."

Raw minced steak. Now that is what you would expect one of the Premiership's most formidable forwards to feast upon.

The Premiership's French connection

* SEBASTIEN BRUNO (Sale, hooker) Age: 31. Caps: 14.

Made his Test debut four years ago but only established himself as a regular last year, when he played in 11 internationals, including all of France's Six Nations Championship matches as they finished second to Wales.

* THOMAS CASTAIGNEDE (Saracens, outside-half, centre, full-back)

Age: 30. Caps: 47. Supremely gifted and versatile back who first played for France 11 years ago. His international days seemed numbered until he made a successful return in the autumn.

* RAPHAEL IBANEZ

(Wasps, hooker) Age: 32. Caps: 74.

Captained his country 27 times and led them to the 1999 World Cup final. Had not played for Bernard Laporte's men since the 2003 World Cup until he made a surprise return for this season's autumn internationals.

* OLIVIER MAGNE (London Irish, flanker) Age: 32. Caps: 83.

Injuries have restricted the great back-rower's Test appearances of late, but he appeared in all of France's games at the 1999 and 2003 World Cups and has played in no fewer than four Grand Slam teams.

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