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Dads’ Army, in the guise of England, won rugby’s World Cup in 2003, but will l’armée des vieux repeat the trick next year for hosts France?
We should know a little more by Sunday night, after the annual Six Nations clash between Europe’s two rugby heavyweights at the Stade de France outside Paris. Invariably, but often wrongly, anticipated as the tournament decider, this year’s game takes place after both nations have been beaten by Scotland. Nonetheless, many will be surprised if Sunday’s winner does not end up as Six Nations champion.
France’s shock reverse in Edinburgh came in their opening fixture. Coach Bernard Laporte has reacted by reverting to experienced heads. Five members of les bleus’ 1999 World Cup squad started the next match against Ireland. No fewer than seven began the latest game against Italy. All will line up again on Sunday.
It was two of the oldtimers, full-back Thomas Castaignède and wing Christophe Dominici, who sparked the team into life against the obdurate azzurri, enabling France to emerge in the end as comfortable winners.
At the squad’s grand headquarters at Marcoussis, south-west of Paris, Castaignède is combative but at ease, batting back questions with his trademark cheeky grin. The long-haired Dominici, one of the few world-class athletes with Corsican blood, is more placid.
Though I watched him torment a powerful New Zealand with guile and dash in an epic World Cup semi-final in 1999 – the first time, he says, the French have been applauded at Twickenham – I little expected Dominici to be still a fixture in the national squad in 2006.
For one thing, at 33 or, as he puts it, “the age of Christ – when he died”, I thought he would have lost speed. For another, in the years since that scintillating display, much of the news about him crossing my radar screen has been bad: a bout of depression; a trip on England’s Jason Robinson in the 2003 World Cup semi-final; an embarrassing faux pas against Italy a couple of years ago when he lost control of the ball when about to score a try. Yet fixture he is under the man who was his old club coach at Paris-based Stade Français. What is the secret of his – and his thirtysomething team-mates’ – longevity?
His answer boils down to two things: desire and a high standard of physical preparation. “We have a lot more bodywork,” he says. He does not think age itself has slowed him down, although the weight he has gained since he was 20 has. The balance between explosiveness, power and pace is, he says, very difficult to maintain.
The joy of veteran athletes for a journalist is that they tend to have the lucidity and freedom to speak their minds. This certainly appears to be the case with Dominici, whose aura of candour stems in part from one of world sport’s more penetrating gazes.
Regarding England, Sunday’s opponents, there is
no attempt at false bravado, just the sober observation that Andy Robinson’s men are “recovering their rigour”. After their World Cup victory, he says, England became afflicted by “a lack of precision, a lack of clear thinking, a lack of concentration”. Now, they have begun to “digest” their victory. (Trust a Frenchman to use a food metaphor.) “They will be very difficult to push around,” he says. “They were always sturdy. But their strength was they had no weaknesses. Even when they were under pressure.”
In spite of Charlie Hodgson’s good form, Dominici clearly thinks the extended absence of Jonny Wilkinson, England’s World Cup-winning outside-half, has hit the team hard. “For two years leading up to the World Cup . . . he was the best player in the world, the best number 10, the best place-kicker,” he says. “Being objective, even though Hodgson is a good player, he is not Wilkinson.”
Given the inconsistency of most Six Nations teams this season, it is hardly surprising that Dominici seems particularly mindful of the relentless pressure
to win in elite-level sport nowadays.
“I have had seasons at Stade Français when we weren’t especially good but we ended up champions of France,” he says. “People only remember the championship. But there have been seasons too when we played extremely well and lost two finals. What do they remember then? Nothing.
“Today sport has become something that is very important in society. It is the equilibrium of a town, the equilibrium of a nation.”
The corollary is that the pressure on the French team at the World Cup [in France] next year will be enormous. “If the English had organised the [last] World Cup, I don’t think they would have been so successful,” he says. “People would have tried anything to destabilise the England team.
“When you are away
from home, cut off from
the world, you don’t have the press. That is important. You are in a cocoon. You prepare yourselves. In 1999 . . . we didn’t have this media pressure.”
Listening to him, you start to think it could help England to be playing in Paris. And then you remember that the home team has won all but one of this year’s nine Six Nations matches.