Listen to this article
Too bad that if a Frenchman is presented with the Rugby Union’s World Cup trophy in Paris nine weeks from Saturday, it probably will not be Fabien Pelous. This is not to decry Pelous’s successor as France’s captain, Raphaël Ibañez. Few Frenchmen could better epitomise the best of his national culture than the charming and sophisticated Ibañez, who plays for London club Wasps.
If, though, there has been a fault with most World Cup-winning captains, it was perhaps being too presentable. David Kirk, Nick Farr-Jones, François Pienaar and John Eales, the first four to lift the trophy, might have auditioned successfully for boy bands. Martin Johnson, England’s leader in 2003 was a bit more like it – so, for that matter, is Ibañez.
But even the magnificently craggy Johnson would concede to Pelous in a most-obviously-a-rugby-player contest. It is not hard to spot Pelous, even against the rugged backdrop of a French pack. He’s the really big one – 6ft 6in and 245lbs – with features not so much chiselled as quarried, an Easter Island monolith made flesh.
He’s as durably granitic as he looks. His selection in the team to play England in the World Cup warm-up match at Marseilles on Saturday night means he win his 112th cap, breaking the French record set a dozen years ago by centre Philippe Sella. Three more will take him past the 114 won by England prop Jason Leonard and be the most for a European or a forward.
Bernard Lapasset, the French Rugby Federation president, has promised “a little something, a friendly gesture” to honour him in Marseilles. Pelous, who specifically asked his team-mates not to do anything when he equalled the record last week at Twickenham, may have mixed feelings about this.
What has gratified him is being associated with Sella. On winning his 100th cap two years ago, he said he had no particular heroes and preferred not to raise one player above another, but made an exception for Sella “for his mental qualities and utter determination”.
His team-mates see similar qualities in him. Prop Pieter de Villiers called him “a rugby monument”, adding: “It is an honour to play with so great a player, who brings us his experience and his champion’s mentality.” Full-back Clement Poitrenaud said that if Ibañez has the words for any situation, Pelous leads by example.
France’s management agree. Pelous is 33. Injuries kept him out of France’s team for most of the past year, and replacement Lionel Nallet played well. But manager Jo Maso made it clear that, if fit, he would be going to the World Cup: “He is one of the most respected players in our group. He is heard, he is respected. When he speaks, there is silence.”
He represents something vital in French rugby. While stereotype emphasises dashing, audacious backs, the tough, unyielding forward is equally important. Pelous, a farmer’s son, is cut from the same cloth as men such as prop Alfred Roques, who is supposed to have spent the second world war carrying cattle carcasses across mountains to feed resistance fighters, and played on into his late 30s.
Pelous, who was born in Toulouse, played his first top-flight rugby as an 18-year-old at nearby Graulhet and has been around long enough to have learned a trade, as a physiotherapist, in the days before professional rugby union. That experience also gave him a philosophy. He has recalled that, after big matches, “on Monday I was back at the hospital, where I would see people die. That teaches you perspective.”
So while admired for his professionalism, he says: “Rugby is not life, but a game.”
That sense of enjoyment was clear this week when he said that his fear while injured was not the possible end of his international career, but “not being able to play the game again”.
He has played it exceptionally well – a tough all-rounder of a lock who was mobile enough to have won caps in the back row, who wins his share of line-out ball and is a constant, formidable presence in defence and at ruck and maul. Four European Six Nations grand slams – a record shared only with team-mate and contemporary Olivier Magne – and that vast pile of caps, plus domestic and European titles with Toulouse have been the rewards.
Scoring eight minutes into his comeback against England last week was a happy beginning, but no guarantee of a starting place. If much of his World Cup is spent on the bench he will be disappointed, but philosophical, having once pointed out: “There is not always a happy ending à la Hollywood.”
As far as ending is concerned, he will play at least one more season with Toulouse and has said nothing about international retirement, except to say with a smile this week: “This is certainly my last World Cup.”
His future is likely to feature the Bordeaux vineyards he bought into in partnership with footballer Djibril Cissé – an investment that rapidly became a passion. He attributes his enthusiasm to farming roots, but it seems just as logical to see a natural affinity with a product that improves with age.