7 Jun, 15:39
ERC can confirm that the Federation Française de Rugby (FFR) has withdrawn its application to host the 2014 Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup finals, due to the ongoing uncertainty regarding the availability of the Stade de France.
Thomas Castaignede is no longer the bottle-blond boy wonder who had France in raptures in the late 1990s. Other boy wonders have taken his place, and there is perhaps less space in the game for a creative player of his stamp to strut his stuff. He's quieter, less cocky, more mature, but, if anything, more passionate about what he does. The old fire could be seen burning as he ran, straight and hard, at Jonny Wilkinson when the England fly-half took an up and under late in England's Six Nations encounter with France, and it will be seen again when Saracens take on Bath in their PARKER PEN CHALLENGE CUP semi-final at Vicarage Road on Sunday, April 13.
"The PARKER PEN CHALLENGE CUP is important for us, but it's also very important for the other three other clubs in the semi-finals. If it was just us, that would be great. The relaunch of the competition this year has been good: there's a lot more interest, everyone has enjoyed the home and away format far more than the pool system, and you've got four big clubs in the semi-finals.
"For us what really matters is that winning it will get us into the Heineken Cup, as we're going to have difficulty qualifying through the Zurich Premiership, unless there's a cholera epidemic. And our trophy cabinet at Saracens is not particularly impressive. It's not exactly on the Real Madrid scale, so we need to get a trophy in there."
Considering the talent they still boast, and those fine players they have let go in recent years, like Scott Murray and Danny Grewcock, Saracens are one of the great underachievers of English rugby. They have struggled through the last two Premiership seasons in spite of the presence of internationals such as Kyran Bracken, Richard Hill and Welsh centre Tom Shanklin. Their benefactor Nigel Wray has brought in all-time greats such as Philippe Sella, Michael Lynagh, Francois Pienaar and Tim Horan, but in terms of trophies the return on his investment is negligible.
"When you see the talent in the club it's very surprising," acknowledges Castaignede.
"I'm not sure the club has been structured in the best way in the recent past but they're laying down some new foundations. I truly hope we're going in the right direction now. You're seeing some good players such as Shanklin come through from the academy, so hopefully the recruitment will be more carefully targeted, and communication within the club will improve.
"We have all the potential, for sure. We were going well in the Premiership just before I was injured, and we started the season well. But we've been cursed with injuries. There have been times when we've had the highest injury count in the Premiership."
Among that lengthy injury list, Castaignede's double rupture of an Achilles tendon was probably the most dramatic. Not only did it rob Sarries of the 'little prince' of French rugby, a livewire at full-back, centre or fly-half, from November 2000 until May 2002, the injury came close to ending Castaignede's career. At times he thought he would never be cured.
"I thought I would always limp. Rugby is important, but this was about other things, like being able to play in the garden with my children."
The details of what followed the little French back's departure from the Stade de France after tearing the tendon while warming up for France's Test with Australia in November 2000 are not for the squeamish. The initial operation to repair the tiny rupture was successful, but the doctors had not noticed that there was a second rupture higher up the tendon. As a result, when Castaignede attempted to train once recovery from the first operation was complete, he was in fact widening the second rupture, which became so large that, when it was finally noticed, a graft was necessary. That graft, in August 2001, did not take, and when the plaster was taken off, the skin and flesh inside had rotted.
"You could pull bits of my Achilles out with tweezers. The doctors took all the rotten stuff out, and they left an enormous hole, big enough to put your fingers in. I could see through to my anklebone. I thought I would never walk again." A third graft was put in, but that was not the end of the torture. The wound refused to close and Castaignede was left half-expecting the whole grisly charade to happen again.
"After the third operation, I asked the doctor to come and put me to sleep with some drugs. I said 'you have my life in your hands, this has to stop.' The best moments were when they drugged me, because there was no pain."
If there was a positive side to the ordeal, it came when he met Michael Schumacher, another client of the legendary French surgeon Gerard Saillant, who has also treated Brazilian footballer Ronaldo and film star Gerard Depardieu. There were letters of support from politicians Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac, and recovery was quick. By Christmas 2001 Castaignede had walked again, and he took his first shower for over a year - he had not been allowed to get the tendon wet. He returned from the bench for Saracens against Northampton in May 2002, and by autumn last year his form was such that he was drafted in for a surprise return to the France squad.
"It seemed to me that I had finally achieved what I had put in all that effort for. All through the difficult times I had been trying to make it positive by saying I would come back, and at last I did that." There were no tears when he stood on the pitch at the Stade Velodrome to face South Africa on November 9, but that was actually because the French press attache Lionel Rossigneux, brother of the former Wasps lock Florent, was making faces at him. The occasion was marked with a typically cheeky little Castaignede move: a close-range drop-goal from nowhere.
"The Equipe de France was transformed in the two years that I was away. I came back, and we met up at the new centre in Linas-Marcoussis, which is a Â£35 million investment, unique in world rugby, and enables us to prepare in the best conditions."
It was transformed in another sense: the influx of youth under international coach Bernard Laporte meant the emergence of exciting young backs like Damien Traille, Clement Poitrenaud, Francois Gelez and Vincent Clerc, a development which meant he was no longer an automatic selection.
But an injury to centre Tony Marsh meant Castaignede started the three autumn internationals, though by the Six Nations, the effervescent form shown by Xavier Garbajosa at centre and Poitrenaud at full-back meant he began France's early games on the bench.
"There is massive competition for me," he accepts, ruefully aware that at 28 he is actually one of the squad's senior members. "I have to fight just to keep my place on the bench. But I think there will be space for the World Cup, because there will be 30 in the squad."
Whatever his future under Laporte, Castaignede is certain that he will stay in England. In London, he is part of a small group of expatriate French sportsmen that includes his fellow Saracens players Christian Califano and Abdel Benazzi, and Arsenal soccer stars Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Sylvain Wiltord and Thierry Henry. They and their families all live in north London, and socialise together in the bars of Hampstead and Crouch End. The soccer players take Castaignede to watch Arsenal; he has taken Pires to see Saracens, although the soccer player was mystified to see the men in black go down by 35 points to London Irish.
"What I like about playing in England is every time you go somewhere new, it's like going into the unknown. The Premiership in England is more disciplined, there are fewer penalties than in France, although otherwise the level is pretty much the same. The matches are more demanding physically than in the 'top 16'. You need a lot more endurance, the players are stronger, although I don't think they throw the ball around as freely as in French club rugby."
"I had some great years in France, but then I wanted to see new things. I love everything about the country
apart from the food. Eating sandwiches and spaghetti bolognese for lunch
every day isn't quite the diet for a sporting career at the highest level. As my friend Christian Califano says, someone is trying to slow us down. I've got three more years from June to run on my contract at Saracens, so I'll finish my career in England unless something goes horribly wrong."
Returning to that run at Wilkinson. It was hard to believe, given the speed with which Castaignede bore down on the England fly-half, that little more than a year earlier he had been on crutches. "I sometimes feel as if the injury means that I have had two lives," he concedes.
"The injury is forgotten, and I'd like to thank the doctors. The best thing, though, is just going on a pitch with my legs moving normal. That is just beautiful."
This article was written by William Fotheringham of The Guardian for ERC's official magazine, Rugby Europe, to find out how to subscribe, click here.