Thion: France can think and drive

Convert from basketball tries to keep Tricolores' minds firmly on the game and the goal

Basketball was the sport from which he made a healthy living before being persuaded that his future was in rugby. Last November his future almost became his past as he suffered a fractured larynx against South Africa in Paris. How on earth do you fracture a larynx? Better to ask John Smit, the Springboks captain, who went for the jugular in the 24th minute.

At the time, of course, Thion was in no position to say "J'accuse", though he could point a finger. "I went to tackle him and he got me in the throat with his elbow," Thion recalls. "I think it was deliberate. I couldn't eat for five days and I couldn't talk for two weeks. It was a big problem for my family."

Thion was out for six weeks and Smit was banned for the same length of time. The South Africa hooker did not have form in matters of skulduggery and he subsequently twice apologised, sending Thion a text message followed by a letter.

No sooner had the lock forward from Biarritz recovered than he was smashed, high and late, by Simon Raiwalui, Saracens' Fijian lock, in a Heineken Cup match. "I can't remember his name," Thion said. "I was sleeping for 40 minutes."

Thion is regarded as an athletic, upwardly mobile member of the French pack, and today he resumes his partnership with the captain, Fabien Pelous, against Scotland at Murrayfield. Last season France looked very ordinary in beating the Scots 16-9 in Paris. "We lost 30 per cent of our line-outs and also had problems in the scrum," Thion said. "This is going to be hard. We have to take it game by game and see what happens. We can't say we're going to win the tournament. Our focus is on Scotland."

At the state-of-the-art national rugby centre in Marcoussis on the outskirts of Paris there is a mock signpost pointing the way to Twickenham and Murrayfield, but there is no sign for Cardiff or Dublin. This is as strange as Remy Martin being confined last week to bed with the flu. It's like a bottle of aspirin having a headache.

Thion took over the captaincy, briefly, when Pelous was suspended for nine weeks for elbow-ing Brendan Cannon in the Test against Australia in Marseilles in November. He accepts that in recent years France's weakness has been a lack of concentration for the duration of a match. He cites not only the disturbing change of fortune against Wales in Paris last season but the exit to England in the semi-finals of the World Cup. "Ah, the water," he said, referring to the rain in Sydney which was given as one reason for France falling to the boot of Jonny Wilkinson. It prompted Clive Woodward to remark that France was not a rain-free zone. "We sometimes switch off in the second half and we are working on that," Thion added. "Mentally we are trying to be more focused."

Enter a new member of the coaching team, Jean-Marie Goyenech, a psychologist from Biarritz. He has already helped Nicolas Brusque, the Biarritz full-back, to return to the national team and has regular consultations with the Tricolores squad. Yet having said that they have to focus match by match and that Scotland have to be taken "very, very seriously", Thion admits that the World Cup, which is in France next year, is paramount in their thoughts.

"The Six Nations is a stepping stone to the bigger tournament. Every morning I wake up with the World Cup on my mind. We have never won it, so it's going to be huge for us."

Pelous agrees. "It concerns me that there will be too much pressure on us," the captain said. "We have to try to relieve it, though I don't know how. It's still 18 months away and it isn't the only thing that counts."

The French have been studying the video of Scotland's autumn match against New Zealand and would have noticed that Dan Parks did an awful lot of kicking before being replaced in the second half. The stand-off got the sort of treatment from the crowd at Murrayfield that Charlie Hodgson got during England's defeat by France at Twickenham. Nevertheless, the Scots have stuck by Parks.

For their part, Thion expects France to play an expansive game. "We have some very talented threequarters and if we get the possession right we should let them express themselves, but we have to get the balance right."

Marcoussis, which has three pitches, one all-weather, a spa, two swimming pools and a hotel, is also the base for the country's top juniors, who are being groomed for the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011. They attend school in the morning and play rugby in the afternoon.

By modern standards Thion, who is 28, was a late starter. Born in Senlis, near Paris, he did not pick up a rugby ball until he was 21. "A friend played for Racing Club in Paris and encouraged me to go along. It was a very different mentality to basketball. The atmosphere was friendly and it suited my vision of a collective sport. Racing Club offered me a contract and then I moved to Clermont, then to Perpignan and on to Biarritz. I've been very lucky."

Biarritz - the name means two rocks - sits between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic coast. Its population is only 30,000, but the club is one of the strongest in France. For their Heineken Cup quarter-final with Sale they are moving to a bigger stadium, in San Sebastien in Spain.

"This is Basque country and there is a big rugby culture," Thion said. "It's a great area." He has just signed a new four-year contract and it is not surprising that Brian O'Driscoll, who atten-ded their match against Stade Français, is thinking of moving there. The surfing is fantastic and the rugby's not bad either.

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