Bernat-Salles still revels in role of wing commander

Hugh Godwin
Sunday 05 January 2003 01:00
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Fringed by the familiarly floppy grey hair, the face of Philippe Bernat-Salles stares out from the front page of the Biarritz Olympique website. "Philippe has something to tell you," it says in French under the photo, and you click through to the next screen, and an advertisement for a holiday camp. It is no surprise that Bernat-Salles can get away with this. He's been getting away with daylight robbery on the wing for years.

It is, of course, Bernat-Salles' holiday camp: the one he owns in Labenne, a short drive north from Biarritz on the glorious, rocky sweep of the Atlantic coast where you find the last outposts of France before you get to Spain; or the first ports of call of the Basque country, depending on your point of view. The advertisement continues: "Because the south-west of France is my country, the country of the softness of living, the festival, the good life, friendship and of course rugby, I recommend Camping la Mer as the ideal place for a very good stay for friends or family." On English club websites, you get updates on groin injuries. With Biarritz, their star international invites you to get away from it all in one of his range of swimming pools with a sea view.

Somehow it all fits with the image of one of Europe's most recognisable and enduring characters. Bernat-Salles, bon viveur and bloody good rugby player, is bound to attract the attention of Northampton and BBC television viewers alike in the Heineken Cup this Saturday.

Prematurely grey at the age of 17, Bernat-Salles blossomed from the close-cropped right-wing in France's 1998 Grand Slam team to the lavishly hirsute hero of 2001, when he set a Six Nations' Championship record by scoring a try in every match. After every try, he flings his arms wide in a trademark, double V-for-victory salute. "It started as a promise to my son, who is 11 now," Bernat-Salles said, though he does not like to discuss the subject at length, having separated from his wife and since fathered a daughter with another woman.

Bernat-Salles has not worn the French jersey since the last match of the 2001 Championship against England. Observers concluded that his love of the social scene – the après-match – counted against him with the disciplinarian coach, Bernard Laporte. "I don't go to bed dreaming about whether I will play for France," Bernat-Salles says now, having finished with 26 tries in 41 Tests. "If Laporte phoned me, I'd go. But there are good young players around, and I'm happy playing for my club, and my friends. It's no problem."

And Bernat-Salles has no problem, either, with his club's preparation for the climax to their Heineken Cup pool – away to Northampton, then home to Cardiff. Biarritz have had three weeks without a match since a 22-15 victory at Bordeaux-Bègles on 21 December put them top of their group in the French Championship.

"It's not difficult for us," Bernat-Salles said. "We came back to training on Friday a little tired from the celebrations of Christmas and New Year, but we have 10 days to prepare for Northampton, and we are OK for motivation. We know we must win against Northampton if we want to go into the quarter-finals with a home game. If we lose, only then we will think about Cardiff."

So while the Saints were slogging to last week's Zurich Premiership defeat by Gloucester, Bernat-Salles was up in the Pyrenees for some rest and relaxation. As a lad growing up in Pau, he was never far from the mountains. He was capped from his hometown club in 1992, had a season with Bègles in 1996-97, and joined Biarritz in 1998. "I liked what I was told by Serge Blanco," Bernat-Salles said, referring to the club's president and the town's most famous rugby son. "He wanted to win the French Championship and I could see he had a plan." The beret-wearing Basques took Bernat-Salles to their hearts and he repaid them last June by helping to land the French title for the first time since 1939.

For Bernat-Salles, it was an overdue club honour to add to his international achievements. He scored the first try at the Stade de France, against England in 1998, and was joint third highest scorer in the following year's World Cup. In the epic semi-final win over the All Blacks at Twickenham he was a silver streak, speeding on to Olivier Magne's upfield hack to score France's fourth try. "My favourite rugby memory is the semi-final of '99," he said. "The worst is losing the final to Australia." Bernat-Salles rates his probable opposite number next week, Northampton's Ben Cohen, as "the best winger in the world right now". The Frenchman, for his part, has lost none of his powers in a team featuring France's current full-back Nicolas Brusque and blindside flanker Serge Betsen. At 32, he still attacks space and opponents with equal ferocity, burning pace and a devastating cover tackle. Northampton have the memory of their 23-20 defeat in France in October to spur them on.

"Biarritz is different to a club like Northampton," added Bernat-Salles. "I've got a lot of respect for them. Our average crowd is no more than five or six thousand, whereas they are a big club, with many internationals. We are having a good season, but it is only halfway through."

It has been written of French rugby that "individualism is, in the matter of manipulating the oval ball, a maker of liabilities". We can all put up with liabilities like Philippe Bernat-Salles.

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