The Rugby World Cup: Whimsical wizard in search of good spell

The Entertainer: Thomas Castaignede of France; Can the French pivot pull something special out of the hat?
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The Independent Online
THOMAS CASTAIGNeDE has clearly not read the script properly. In this age of total rugby, when teamwork means everything and individualities count for very little, the French stand-off sticks out like a sore thumb. Has he not been told? Modern rugby is all about ball retention, solid scrummaging, powerful running and hard tackling. You can base a team's philosophy around flair play, but you can no longer base a team around a flair player.

That is unless you are French. Indeed, the Tricolores' motto could easily read: losing pretty is more important than winning. But then, when did French rugby ever follow the rule book? Castaignede certainly doesn't. Temperamental and unpredictable, the impish fly-half is quite simply a magician, a player who generates excitement every time he is in possession of the ball.

In fact, watching him play, you are immediately reminded of the former legend Serge Blanco. "Why, because of the colour?" asks Castaignede mischievously. "No, seriously, I know what you mean. We're both unpredictable. Like Serge, I play in a natural way, relying exclusively on my instincts. I never ask myself any questions."

Having played alongside Blanco in the early Eighties, the current French manager, Jean-Claude Skrela, knows better than most just how special a player Castaignede is. "Thomas is unique. Like Blanco, he has that incredible ability to sway a match in an instant. But Blanco played at full-back, so his responsibilities to the team were far less. Thomas can't afford to play as an individual; he has to keep the team's best interests at heart. He has a crucial role to play as the pivot of the side.

"Everybody knows what he is capable of doing in the final third of the pitch when we're attacking," continues Skrela, "but it is equally important for him to do the simple things right whenever we have possession."

The problem is that France have not been doing much right in the last 15 months, simple or otherwise. Capable of beating the best on their day, Les Tricolores are equally likely to lose to a weaker team. It is the 640,000-franc question: how is it that the French make Dr Jekyll look stable? And, in keeping with the image of the team, Castaignede is an enigma. "Forget what the opposition might be thinking," admits the 25-year-old. "I often don't know what I'm going to do next. Sometimes I can be as much of a danger to my team-mates as to the opposition."

Castaignede may be talking in jest, but his tendency to blow hot and cold is a serious issue. "I know, but what can I say.... I love rugby; I love the game. But I'd get the same pleasure from playing in the third division as I do from being an international. Just being on the pitch is what counts."

Born into a poor working-class family in Mont-de-Marsan in the South of France, Castaignede is perhaps simply grateful that rugby has given him a way out from what he calls "the tedium of country life". But if Castaignede's early playing days were a form of escapism, some of the carefree performances of a couple of seasons ago have now all but disappeared. "I am aware that I've had off- days recently," he says. "I have completely missed matches, but that happens. And I am gaining in maturity. With age, you realise that picking up injuries or losing confidence in your ability is not unusual. Just like we, as a team, have lost confidence this season, so too individual players can have doubts. But you bounce back."

Exactly how France plan to "bounce back" from the debacle of the last 15 months is a mystery. Ever since brushing the Welsh aside in that incredible 51-0 win at Wembley in April last year, both the team and Castaignede have completely lost their way. "It's true," he says. "But there is always a route back. We need to tighten up our defence and rediscover some of the serenity which was so evident in 1998. We're in a rut but we intend to play our way out of it."

Perhaps the hope is that the team will be spurred on by performing on the biggest stage of all. "Playing in a World Cup was my dream," says Castaignede, who as a child named his dog Campese after the maverick Australian winger. "I remember watching the first one in 1987 and being mesmerised. I'm unlikely to play for long, so I want to make the most of this opportunity."

Unlikely to play for long? Why ever not? "Because I don't think I have that kind of temperament. I am the type of person who will stop as soon as I no longer have the burning desire to do well." The more you talk to Castaignede, the more you detect shades of Eric Cantona. Here is an exceptional talent, arguably the most exciting player in the game today, ready to walk away at any time. "It is just the way I am," he says. "People have always tried to impose constraints on me, and I do try to respect those wishes, but I am..." Castaignede hesitates. He is struggling to find the right word. "Well, I'm not selfish, but it's fair to say that I am whimsical."

Castaignede is indeed an intriguing character. The ultimate show-off on the pitch, he tends to shy away from the limelight when off it. And, unlike many top athletes, he is not afraid to praise his peers. "Somebody like Cullen really makes me dream. When I see him get the ball and dance around the pitch, it really excites me; it's what rugby's all about. And Carlos Spencer is terrific. He's a true player, in the old-fashioned way. Merhtens is more sober, while Carlos dares to do things with the ball."

Serious doubts remain as to whether France have the necessary attributes to protect Castaignede and enable him to express himself fully during a match. Not least because this promises to be the most open of all the World Cups to date. "Winning it would be an incredible feat," acknowledges Castaignede, "especially because there are so many great teams in the competition. England are capable of beating New Zealand, Scotland could overcome South Africa, while Wales and Ireland might well surprise a few people. Add to those ourselves and Australia and you can see that the tournament is wide open."

Another issue open to question is what the public can expect from the entertainer and his troops during this World Cup? "We plan to win it," he says confidently. And can the entertainers win it by entertaining? "The ideal result would be 3-0 in the final, just like the football team did last year against Brazil. Two World Cups in France at the same time. That would be some double."