France entering La Belle Epoque

Fabien Pelous’ eyes sparkle as he “gets to take the girl home” after the 2002 Six Nations

It’s probably stereotyping but the French can’t keep sex out of anything. Just can’t. Check the ads for cars, baby wipes, stairlifts for the elderly; they are all loaded with a whiff of je ne sais quoi, that feeling that anything is possible and nothink ees eemposeeble.

Naturally, this extends to the Six Nations as well. A decade and some ago, the then French captain Fabien Pelous (right) almost went down on one knee and proposed to it.

“For me the beginning of the Six Nations is like the start of a grand party where your eyes meet those of the most beautiful woman there on the far side of the room,” he told me.

“Your eyes lock and you know in that instant that this evening will hold a mystery. Maybe the beautiful women will be cruel and turn her back on you or maybe you drink champagne and make love. This woman is the Six Nations.”

I kid you not. After our phone call, I chuckled heartily as I told my girlfriend. Her reaction was not to laugh but to wipe away a tear from the corner of her eye and scold me for never saying things like that about her; why couldn’t I be a bit more like Fabien? She did go on to marry me but I suspect deep down she still pines for him.

This week, Thierry Dusautoir was less expansive but if you can read anything in people’s eyes, he was thinking the same as that romantic old devil Fabien.

“It is still exciting even for me, after all these years. We may be professionals but this is not just a case of going to the office. It is a beautiful competition, sometimes it doesn’t turn out so well but sometimes…” (and this is where the slightly rheumy eyes give him away) “….there is a magic about it all. It is very (Pinteresque pause laced with mystery and just a hint of menace) stimulating.”

Dusautoir, of course, has had his many grand romances on the rugby field, notably leading the French to the 2011 World Cup final, but these days he is no longer the captain, permanently demoted by coach Philippe Saint-André after Pascal Papé did such an excellent filling-in job during last summer’s tout to Argentina and the autumn tests.

Thierry Dusautoir on the charge

Such is the competition these days for places in the back row, Dusautoir was not even sure until Wednesday when he was given the nod ahead of Toulouse teammate Yannick Nyanga, who has been in outstanding form, that he would be travelling to Rome for France’s opening match against Italy.

 Remember Imanol Harinordiquy? Albeit he was injured earlier in the season but at the moment it would be a surprise if the Biarritz number eight, such a totem in seasons past, were to feature for France in the Six Nations or any other time. Injuries, of course, can change things quickly so don’t go ducking down to the bookie on that one on my account.

“I hope to profit from this change of role,” said Dusautoir, 31, who had been the undisputed captain since taking on the role in 2008. “I am a soldier now, not the captain so I have to prepare differently. I have the luxury of focusing only on myself. I am not certain to start and I have to share a room again so it is all a bit different. Whatever happens, I won’t regret a thing.”

The point is, Saint-André is not prepared to mark time. He inherited Marc Lièvremont’s team last year and it came up a bit breathless in the Six Nations, especially against a young England side that turned them over in spectacular style at the Stade de France.

George Barbier
George Barbier’s view of the Belle Epoque vision of rugby where the rugby players, themselves a touch effete, make the ladies go weak at the knees

That was the cue to look forward, to create a new Belle Epoque for French rugby. Perhaps not in the George Barbier style – these guys don’t look ready to kick over a sandcastle so not sure how they deal with the hairy, muscelbound thugs that prowl the fringes of every modern ruck.

Effectively the team has a new spine. At hooker, Dimitri Szarzewski has finally stepped into the boots of the almost (but not quite) irreplaceable William Servat while Louis Picamoles nailed down the number eight shirt with some compelling performances in the autumn, notably in the shredding of Australia – when Nyanga was also outstanding.

The half-backs changed as well with Maxime Marchenaud and Morgan Parra sharing duties at 9 with the rejuvenated Frédéric Michalak looking twice the player he was ten years ago at 10.

At full-back Brice Dulin announced himself against the Wallabies but he is injured. Saint-Andre’, though, hasn’t gone the obvious route of calling up the mercurial Clément Poitrenaud; instead he summons Poitrenaud’s Toulouse colleague Yoann Huget, who is five years younger, to fill the breach with 23-year-old Benjamin Fall coming in for Vincent Clerc on the wing.

There are changes elsewhere of course. Romain Taufifenua  is a lock to watch and you may well see Matthieu Basteraud, a squat, powerful battering ram of a centre relishing his second chance at this level.

“The past is the past,” he said referring to an unsavoury incident on tour to New Zealand in 2009 involving too much alcohol and a bust up with a couple of teammates in which Bastareaud emerged with severe bruising on his face.

He claimed he had been mugged in the street, sparking national soul-searching in New Zealand, not to mention a massive police investigation which upon inspection of the CCTV footage at the hotel suggested that the young centre had made it all up.

Legal niceties, sadly, keep us from telling the whole tale but it is, trust me, very unsavoury.

Philippe Saint-André is writing a new chapter for French rugby which could well end with a World Cup win in 2015

Diplomatic relations between New Zealand and France dipped to their worst since the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 before Bastareaud ‘fessed up and was effectively sent to international coventry.

He has been playing well for Toulon of late, though, and Saint-André sees him as a useful weapon to have in his armoury. Hence the rehabilitation.

 “I am 23 now, I have changed clubs (from Stade Français to Toulon), I have learnt much from being with players like Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau. On and off the field.” We hope so.

 And with the likes of Maxime Mermoz and Wesley Fofana in the backs, this French side promises to deliver everything we love about their game. Bullish scrummaging, some dark arts around the fringes – Dusautoir remains one of the world masters when it comes to turnovers – and some blissful running. Now who’s getting rheumy-eyed?