Sebastien Chabal is one of the most distinctive figures in world rugby and a fearsome presence. But what has he got left to offer France after the disappointments of the 2007 World Cup?
There’s no doubt about it that Sebastien Chabal cuts a striking figure but quite how powerful his impact is on the public has to be seen to be believed. He was the talk of the town, and of the countryside, in France during the World Cup.
Staying in Boulogne in September of 2007, and turning on the TV early on a Saturday evening revealed a French chat show, probably on Canal +. Its themes: the week in France, the world, the media and the arts. Hosted and watched by very beautiful people, the talk was about France who the previous evening had beaten Ireland and mainly about Chabal.
There were moody pictures of Chabal and his colleagues in various states of undress. Rugby and French rugby was tres sexy. And whenever Chabal was talked about or shown, there was a tangible sexual frisson and rustling of stockinged legs being crossed and uncrossed, emanating from the females in the studio.
Chabal’s affect on opponents is a little more brutal. But even so, his iconic status within the game is recognised far beyond French shores. And, in fact, his daily bread is buttered in Manchester at Sale Sharks.
The fact is, France has traditionally had an iconic player in its flair-filled team, whether it be Jean-Pierre Rives, Jo Maso or Serge Blanco. And to their ranks can now be added Chabal. He is that distinctive.
The 30-year-old had not exactly received plaudits from World Cup coach Bernard Laporte in the build up to the tournament. But the French boss would have been a very brave man not to have selected him for that crunch Group D World Cup clash with Ireland, given Chabal’s adulation from the French spectators.
Nicknamed The Caveman and that moniker is just one of the tags he’s been saddled with because of his unfashionably long hair and beard the two tries he scored against part-timers Namibia only served to increase his cult status among the French supporters.
For such an immense person, he is remarkably disarming and understated off the field. Apparently, he grew the beard for a bet and is now too lazy to shave it off. At least that’s what he has said. He must also know that the Visigoth features are part of what make him such an intimidating presence. But not for him the cryptic musings of former France international footballer Eric Cantona, and his choice of car is minimal, as he drives a Smart car.
“Must be a higher roof than usual! Or else they will have to have taken the roof off,” remarked one of his teammates.
It’s the look and the style of his play that have made him the man the crowd love to watch and that has made him hugely marketable. But Chabal is not a man to jump on any old bandwagon regardless of the euros being waved under his nose. There have been offers from a chocolate firm, a cereal company and others. But his agent Karine Rossigneux, sister of the French team press spokesman Lionel, has rejected offers from construction firms trying to exploit his size.
Yet for all the status, the irony is that Chabal is something of a round peg for a square hole. Does he play back row, primarily in the pick-up-and-go spot of No. 8, or do you place him in the second row? Then there’s the small matter of whether you start the game with him or use him as a wrecking-ball, impact substitute?
Laporte acknowledges that Chabal, who has won more than 30 caps spread over seven years since he made his debut against Scotland in March 2000, is now worth his weight in gold because of the vast improvements in his game since he joined Sale in 2004.
“Four years ago, he was a different player,” said Maso, who displayed remarkable survival characteristics in remaining manager of the French team for three World Cups. “It is wonderful, because he is always progressing. Everyone was sceptical, apart from us, when we opted to make him into a lock instead of the back row. We are delighted with the way he has made the transformation.”
For Chabal, who has also picked up the noms de guerre of Attila, Rasputin, and from the English media, The French Beast, Seabass, the Anaesthetist and Cartridge talk is cheap.
“So they [the French supporters] chant my name. So what? Let’s not talk about it.” Expectations in the build-up to France 2007 were so high that in the end they perhaps throttled the team.
“We think a lot about winning the World Cup,” said Chabal at the time. “Now we have done everything we needed to do to be champions and we just have to play the games.
“I think we are in the right position to start the World Cup now. We won our three friendly games, which showed everybody we are ready, and it’s good for our confidence.”
Inspired by memories of the football World Cup in 1998, the French rugby team were expected to reprise that triumph. “It was a huge event when France won the football in 1998. There were 10 million people in Paris, and it was unbelievable,” said Chabal.
In August, Chabal scored the crucial try against England at Twickenham in their warm-up game. France won 21-15. Earlier in the year, on a miserable trip to New Zealand he broke Ali Williams’ jaw with a bone-jarring tackle.
For Chabal, it is all about playing. “Bernard spoke about moving me a few years ago, but he never did it,” said Chabal. “But just before he named the squad he called me and said he really wanted to pick me, but as a second rower. I agreed and accepted it as a good challenge.
“Whether it’s as a second row or a back row, all I want is to play. That’s what’s most important to me.”
Such willingness should help his cause as France regroup under new coach Marc Lievremont. Old favourites, like Fabien Pelous, are gone so there are playing opportunities opening up for Chabal.
It is an amazing transformation after an erratic start to his career. Chabal made his name in England as soon as he joined Sale Sharks in 2004.
“To form a good back row, you need a rat catcher, someone tall and a cart horse. At Sale, I’m the cart horse. I bring power and aggression, and they love it,” he said.
Less frequent, are those quirks to his game that made him stand out in spite of his physical appearance like missing a tackle on an opponent and tackling the linesman instead; lurching towards the referee when blown-up; trying to tackle the wrong player; and whilst attempting a small kick just behind the back line, he miscued it completely and subsequently attempted to boot the ball over the posts whilst it was still on the ground.
It is for moments like this that his followers have banded together and called themselves Chabalists. Chabal is not exactly comfortable with all this adulation. “I’m not a star, I don’t like to talk about my fame. I am just a rugby player among other ones.
“It has not been difficult to return from the World Cup. On the contrary, it’s quite easy. I needed to return to my club in order to move on because we spent four months with L’Equipe de France and the ending has not been a happy one.
“We were very disappointed. So I want to concentrate myself quickly on other objectives and see other things.
“We at Sale are ambitious, and like every season we are going to try to win the English league again. We also want to win the European Challenge Cup because, unfortunately, we haven’t been able to qualify for this season’s Heineken Cup.”
The Frenchman plays alongside fellow countrymen Lionel Faure, Sebastein Bruno and Julien Laharrague at Sale, something he believes is a strength of the side. “It is nice to have all those Frenchmen in the team, it helps me to feel at home,” he added. “Since director of rugby Philippe Saint Andre arrived, there have always been three or four in the team, which is a huge boost.”
Chabal, despite his reticence, is nothing but distinctive when he plays. And when he scores, he is often in terrifying full flight. He scored two tries against Namibia in the World Cup both of them in the corner. The first came from a soaring high catch of a towering cross-field kick, the second after bullocking his way to the line from halfway. The picture of his dive for the second try hair flying was pure front-page material.
Yet for all this raw aggression, he says of his state of mind on the rugby pitch: “In my mind, tranquil, yeah.” But how can he be so tranquil mentally and so aggressive physically?
“I can’t explain,” he said. “I enjoy confrontation because that is the basis of rugby to fight for your piece of ground. I am always direct. I started like that, when I first played rugby, and I will finish like that. But I am always calm here in my head.”
Chabal has an unusual background for an international rugby player in that he did not start playing rugby until he was 17.
“I was doing nothing, no sport, no fishing, no hunting, nothing. Just going to a bar with a couple of mates,” he said.
One day, his friends persuaded him to join the local rugby club at Beauvallon near Valence, in the Drome area. He loved the atmosphere and the game. Legend has it that he was spotted by Jeff Tordo, a former France captain, and that the then Bourgoin coach Michel Couturas signed him without a trial after seeing his huge hands and feet.
Former teammates have been quoted as saying that his arms are so long he can scratch the back of his knees some go as far as the soles of his feet without bending. Five years after he handled a rugby ball for the first time, he won his first cap against Scotland in the 2000 Six Nations. Three years later, he was selected in the 2003 World Cup squad.
It looked as if he was about to start a long career as a fixture in the French side, but his performances did nothing to alter his reputation for inconsistency, indiscipline and lack of technical skills.
He also made the mistake of complaining that reserve players had not been given a chance to prove their worth. Coach Bernard Laporte was not amused and Chabal was sent into the wilderness.
In 2004, however, Chabal decided to follow his former coach at Bourgoin and former France captain, Philippe Saint-Andre, who had moved to England to become Sale manager. He became an instant hit with the supporters. His feats in the English Premiership persuaded Laporte to recall him in 2005.
He failed. And was once again shelved. But a flamboyant performance in a Heineken Cup game against Stade Français, Laporte’s former club, led the French coach to give him another chance in the 2007 Six Nations and to name Chabal in his World Cup squad.
“A few months ago, I wouldn’t have bet much on my international future,” Chabal said at the time. “It’s a new chance to prove I can play at international level. Probably the last chance, but I’m ready to fire my last cartridge.”
A new Six Nations and Chabal will hopefully be back to lead the marauding French pack. It is, even when he’s playing against your team, one of rugby’s finer sights.
Pictures PA Photos