IT IS astonishing that Laurent Cabannes has become the finest flanker in European rugby union after being involved in a car accident four years ago which nearly took his life. He has a chance to confirm his status in his 22nd international against Ireland, in Dublin, on Saturday.
Cabannes still swears that he owes his life, if not his limbs, to the fact that, like all good Parisians, he virtually never wears a seatbelt.
The accident occurred on Boxing Day 1988 and Cabannes, then 26, was half-way through yet another outstanding season for his club, Racing. Jacques Fouroux was still coaching France, however, and it was the era of loose forwards like Alain Carminati, Thierry Devergie, and Marc Cecillon, all 16 and 17 stoners, massive, powerful and not particularly quick.
The 14st 3lb Cabannes, in spite of his line-out jumping, his lightning pace and all-round athleticism, was never considered. 'I was at my peak in those years,' he said. 'Personally I think I had something interesting to offer for the French team.'
Destiny intervened in the shape of a lift from a workmate driving a Peugeot 205GTi. Just a quick doddle through the Bois de Boulogne for lunch at the Royal Villiers, one of Racing's regular haunts. 'I saw the corner, I thought he would slow down, but instead he accelerated,' said Cabannes. Travelling at more than 80mph, the car failed to take the bend, and collided head-on with a vehicle coming the other way before hitting a tree.
Cabannes, sans seatbelt, was ejected from the car by the impact. His chest was crushed, his right humerus shattered and, worst of all, the nerves controlling the movement of his right arm were severed at the shoulder.
His recovery and subsequent international career have been little short of miraculous. But for more than a year he lived with the fear that there was no guarantee that he would ever use his right arm again, let alone do up the laces of his rugby boots. 'It was a black period in my life. Suddenly I realised I was walking a tightrope between two worlds - the world of normal people, and the world of the handicapped.'
Six months after the accident Cabannes' right arm still flapped uselessly at his side and the endless neurological tests continued to find no active response.
'My life had changed completely,' he said. 'I couldn't drive, I couldn't write, it took me about a week to dress myself and I went from operation to operation hoping every time that it would come right.'
One of France's leading surgeons managed to reassemble the humerus thanks to a four-inch metal plate and 12 screws. And, as the months went by, a trace of feeling returned to the arm. 'I started to see a ray of light at the end of the tunnel and little by little I started to make tiny movements with my fingers,' he said.
The rest is now history and, 14 months after the accident, Cabannes once again took the field for half a game. But surgeons were still not satisfied with the healing of the bones so it was back to the operating theatre, where his arm was reopened again.
Today, Cabannes, a champagne merchant, is able to joke about his bionic arm. 'It's so well done I could do a test for Samsonite suitcases,' he said. 'But they reconstructed my arm in the knowledge that I played rugby. No doubt if I competed in sack races or ping- pong they would have made it a little less sturdy.'
His trials were not over, however. Six weeks after the last operation, Cabannes played against Bayonne and paid the price for not being fully fit. 'I had been away for so long. I was so excited. I knew I should have waited but I just couldn't wait to get out there.' After 60 minutes, Cabannes wrenched ligaments in a knee and doctors told him he would be out for at least another four months.
Cabannes refused to have the recommended operation. Instead, he spent the next two months strengthening his knee and, with the heavy bandage he continues to use today, he reappeared for Racing in May 1990 in time to take part in the final phases of the French championship. Le Miracule, as Jean-Baptiste Lafond called him, played a key role in beating Grenoble in the quarter- final; he set up the decisive try to beat Toulouse in the semis; and in a rugged final against Agen, Cabannes broke the deadlock to score the winning try in extra time.
'After everything I had been through, winning that final was the most powerful emotion I had ever felt,' he said. 'Certainly more important and more moving than when I was first picked for France.'
With Daniel Dubroca taking over from Fouroux for the 1991 Five Nations' Championship, Cabannes' talents were finally recognised and since then he has been an automatic choice in the No 7 shirt. Universally regarded as one of the fairest players in international rugby, he has also become the star of the French sevens team, played two games for the Barbarians and, although forced to decline through club commitments, was selected for the World XV to play in the New Zealand centenary games last year.
Saturday's game in Dublin will be his third against the Irish. But it is not just because he has scored a try in each of the previous encounters that Cabannes has a soft spot for the men in green. One of his all-time favourite images from the game of rugby involves the Irish and their indomitable spirit, or le fighting, in best Franglais: 'I will never forget Willie Anderson and the incredible look on his face when they defied Shelford and the All Black haka in Dublin in 1989. L'Irlande, c'est ca]'
Anderson is no longer there, but bionic Cabannes knows his opposite numbers Pat O'Hara and Denis McBride will be as unyielding and disruptive as ever. 'The Irish never look much on paper, but they play with so much heart and so much generosity that they are capable of putting any team off their game.'
As for the once-useless right arm, it is almost back to full force - with the exception, perhaps, of the extension of the fingers.
'But look,' Cabannes said with a grin. 'I can still close my fist perfectly. Now that's something important to have in French rugby]'
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies