Jean-Claude Skrela is one of those quiet and confident types. His name may not be as instantly recognisable as Dwyer or Mallet, but his achievements speak for themselves. Not only has he guided the Tricolores to their first-ever back-to-back Grand Slams, but his beloved Colomiers side, featuring his son David, fell only at the final hurdle of the European Cup yesterday. Single-minded, respected and admired, Skrela has risen from obscurity in much the same way as his adopted town. While the son of Polish refugees has defied the odds by playing for - as well as coaching - Toulouse and France, the small southern village of 2,000 inhabitants has grown into a town with a population of 32,000 and a competitive rugby team of its very own.
We met in the Town Hall, a typical Le Corbusier edifice, built on top of the first rugby pitch, and where Skrela now holds the office of Sports Councillor. "This is my hobby," he insists with that unmistakable, mischievous smile of his. But, somehow, you doubt he has "hobbies".
Skrela, an uncompromising blind-side flanker who was capped 46 times by France, is very proud of Colomiers' achievements. He remains realistic though and is adamant that English clubs need to return to the fray as quickly as possible in order to provide the European Cup with the profile it deserves. "I really hope it happens soon," says the man they called Apollo because of his chiselled looks, "but I also wish the northern hemisphere would set up a schedule to rival that of the southern hemisphere. They got together and created strong competitions, so there is no reason why we cannot do the same and think big."
After years of flattering only to deceive, there is a strong feeling that the French team might finally fulfil their ambitions. If they do, it will largely be thanks to Skrela's insistence on discipline. "It's much better now, but we just lost a match [against Australia in October] because of that. The players know they cannot win if they lose their personal and collective disciplines." If only Brian Moore was still playing. Skrela has gradually transformed the side he inherited from Pierre Berbizier in September 1995, weeding out the trouble-makers and building the present team, which he can rightly claim as his own. "The French team does not belong to me," the coach points out diplomatically. "The team belongs to France."
One of Skrela's undeniable strengths is his calm self-belief. Question him about his right-hand man, Pierre Villepreux, and the influence he has on the team, and the man with steely blue eyes shows no superiority complex. "We have played and managed together at club and international level. We have the same outlook on training, playing and living. What can I say, we're very compatible, which explains why we've been friends for 30 years and why I brought him into the set-up."
There is indeed a widely held belief (and misconception) that the Tricolores play a la Villepreux. "Well, it is true that he has always had this vision of rugby. But then, so have I. Maybe the confusion has arisen because he is better known than me by name, but our outlook is the same. Ultimately, though, it is not about Skrela or Villepreux's style, it is about the French team. We both know that individuals are irrelevant."
Proof of their closeness and unshakeable trust was never more apparent than yesterday, when Villepreux - technically Skrela's No 2 - took charge of the team in Genoa against Italy, while his boss watched the European Cup final in Dublin. "Let me tell you that those who try to pit Villepreux against Skrela will fail. We've known each other far too long for that."
When discussing the demands of professional rugby, the man who played in the great French side of 1977 alongside Jean-Pierre Rives, feels that the transition has worked well in France. "We had a few hitches three or four years ago, but things have settled down now. I think we have realised that a professional elite is inevitable but that, equally, we must not cut ourselves off from the rich rugby base in France. And the same applies in every country. Both amateurs and professionals must help each other and communicate to ensure that young players and the game continue to develop."
He does show rather more concern about the amount of rugby being played today, though. "Players don't just play more games, they also play more during the 80 minutes. In most Five Nations matches, the ball is in play for 35 minutes rather than 20 as when I was around. That requires players to be much fitter. But a player is not a machine, you cannot just replace an injured limb with a spare part. When he is tired, he is tired, and should be left to rest."
Skrela believes the Five Nations will be tighter than ever this year. "It's because all the northern hemisphere teams have embraced a new style of rugby. Just look at the autumn Tests. Our teams were much stronger than in 1997. Wales and Ireland, who are blessed with talent, have brought in New Zealand coaches to focus the minds and restore confidence," he says, no doubt using a touch of reverse psychology. "And after beating the world champions, England will be on a high."
As far as the French team are concerned, Skrela contends the games in Paris will be tough enough, but that their two away matches will be the real tests. "We are a young team who lack experience despite last year's success." So a repeat of the 51-0 demolition of Wales at Wembley last April is unlikely? "That match against Wales is naturally la reference for the way we want to play, but we are still too erratic. The French are like that. We can play brilliant, breath-taking rugby in one match and not so well in the next. We are Latins, not Anglo-Saxons, so we tend to be more temperamental. The modern game is all about freshness, good interplay, and ruthless finishing. That is crucial."
One player who is more than capable of finishing a move is the 1995 World Cup star Emile N'Tamack. The Toulouse back returned against Italy after two years out through injuries. "He is a great player. Somebody special, who can turn a game in a second," insists Skrela. Another long-term absentee, who will no doubt play some part in the tournament, is Jean-Luc Sadourny, the Colomiers and France full-back. Having played in the European Cup final yesterday, he has the full backing and patience of the management. "We must not rush him. Like Benazzi, he has been out for eight months with a cruciate knee ligament injury, and must ease his way back into game."
But the piece de resistance of the French team is unquestionably Thomas Castaignede. The fly-half was the revelation of the 1998 season and is, by Skrela's own admission, the key to the side. "No doubt about it. He's the one who makes us tick. We really missed him in the autumn. But his absence also highlighted the fact that we lack cover in certain areas and we need to build a strong pool of players. It is almost like a football World Cup squad, where all the players must be ready to come on at any time. The best teams have always had a good system, good team-work but also, crucially, special players who can turn a match in a moment." David Campese's influence on the Wallabies' side of the early Nineties or Jonah Lomu's on the All Blacks during the last World Cup prove that.
Much like Serge Blanco, the president of the French League, Skrela wants to see a synchronisation of the two hemispheres' rugbies. "We need to harmonise our seasons, with us gaining a month or them losing one. Only then will we compete on equal terms. As things stand, we will never play in a World Cup when we are at our strongest, which is during the Five Nations. That is wrong."
Curiously, not a single English-based player can make the team at the moment. "The English league is excellent and I would never drop a player because he is playing there. It just so happens that, at the moment, the French playing there are not part of our plans."
Armed with the most gallic of players then, Skrela is plotting the French assault on the Webb-Ellis trophy. "We have a great chance, but we must truly believe in ourselves. Look at our football team, they weren't favourites for the cup last summer, but they rallied and won it. We simply must not fear defeat." Somehow, you doubt they will.
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