The Toulouse side which won last year's Heineken Cup features young, exciting talents suchas Yanick Jauzion and Frederic Michalak. Pirate Irwin of Agence France Presse reports
If there were any players from the French squad who could put up an advertising hoarding paraphrasing Heineken's mantra 'this is the beer that refreshes careers other beers can't reach', it would be Toulouse's young tyros Frederic Michalak and Yanick Jauzion.
Along with their team-mate Clement Poitrenaud, these exciting talents used Europe's premier club competition as the springboard on which to propel themselves to the attention of a wider audience in world rugby.
Michalak may have been one of the stars of the Rugby World Cup and the RBS Six Nations, but he cannot be absolutely certain of holding down the fly-half spot for the reigning Heineken Cup champions.
"I need to play consistently at No. 10 for Toulouse, so I hope the coaching staff at the club will recognise that,"
says Michalak, who is equally adept at scrum-half. "At the moment they are still hesitating between playing me at nine or 10 but it needs to be sorted out," adds the former French under-21 captain.
In the run-up to the semi-final with England with Sydney, after a string of virtuoso performances in the earlier stages, many pundits then labelled him as the best fly-half in the world - always a risky move when an inexperienced 21- year-old is concerned though to be fair to him it was a moniker he rejected with the derision it deserved. The likeableplaymaker, who went into the game as the World Cup's top scorer with 101 points, is ready to put that dreadful experience behind him.
"The way we played that night was like a circus act," he says. "Of course it is still in my head how I played that
night. But I would like to think I can put it to the back of my mind as it is in the past but it will remain with me. In a way I like that as you can take lessons from bad performances and rid yourself of those errors.
Michalak's other problem could come in the understandable form of match fatigue - even some of Napoleon's battlehardened troops would have been struggling after a regime of almost nonstop training and campaigning for a year and a half which has brought complaints from the players' union that there has been no winter break.
"I have had no sort of break since the World Cup," says Michalak, whose outward maturity belies his youth. "I
went straight back to club rugby and I can't see having a holiday unless I get injured. The thing I am most concerned about at the moment is that while I am not tired now I could suffer a reaction later in the season."
Michalak cites the example of several England players who have since fallen by the wayside as examples of the wear and tear, most notably the Bath centre Mike Tindall who looks likely to miss the entire Six Nations Championship due to an ankle injury.
26-year-old Jauzion looked as far from the madding French World Cup crowd as the average garlic salesman a year ago, but his brilliant play in the Heineken Cup turned everything round and propelled him into the squad for last summer's tour of Argentina and New Zealand where even defeat in all three Tests failed to dislodge him from national coach Bernard Laporte's mindset when it came to his first-choice centre pairing for the World Cup.
The quietly spoken but charming Jauzion paid handsome tribute to the importance having a good run in the Heineken Cup played in helping him regain his place in the French set-up, at the expense of the former darling of the Tricolores, Thomas Castaignede. He had been selected for various tours of the southern hemisphere and in autumn Tests against touring nations but never for a Six Nations start.
"I think the Heineken Cup helped enormously in my development as a player," Jauzion said. "It pits the best clubs from all round Europe against each other and it especially helped me that I had played against the best English clubs."
Jauzion said playing at that level since joining Toulouse from their local rivals Colomiers had been one of the biggest contributory factors in enabling him to cement a place at centre alongside Tony Marsh - instead of Damien Traille - for France in their most crucial matches during the World Cup.
"I switched from Colomiers [which he joined at the age of 21] to Toulouse because they have a lot more ambition," he candidly admitted. His move was almost a mirror image of that made by for retired France captain Fabien Galthie when he left for Stade Francais for his final year in the sport because he was desperate to have one last tilt at winning a French championship, something which he achieved against a Toulouse side including Jauzion. "The difference is that everyone wants to beat Toulouse, they are their marker." Jauzion said that while international matches are clearly on a higher plane,
Heineken Cup matches provide an honest enough dress rehearsal for Tests in terms of experience at taking on the best players in European rugby. "I would say the best matches in Europe are equivalent to the bad matches in international rugby - they are the intermediate stage of professional competitive rugby. That is vital to experience if you are to integrate into international rugby more easily."
"In terms of the way we all got on in the squad it was a wonderful time and one that I want to experience again and, touch wood, I will at home in 2007. It was an extraordinary time for me on a human level but obviously on a sportsman's terms it could have been better. Unfortunately we did not show the real face of French rugby that night against England - whatever people might say about the weather conditions, even if the rain and wind stopped us from playing our natural offensive game," adds Jauzion.
Toulouse put right their surprise 23-16 defeat at the hands of Edinburgh in their opening game in the current Heineken Cup campaign with a stunning 33-0 win in Round 6 As a result Toulouse face the Scottish sidein the Heineken Cup quarter-final.
Jazion offeres an explanation for the opening day shock. "I think that was just because those of us who had played in the World Cup were playing our first match since then and there was a lack of communication
between us and the rest of the team.
"It was surprising because we had whacked them in Edinburgh at the same stage of the tournament last year, but there are many things in our form that have improved since the defeat and we will be ready for them in Toulouse and, dare I say, it will then be payback time!"
Were Jauzion to appear on This Is Your Life (or Ca C'est Ta Vie, if it existed in French), there are one or two people he would credit with making him the hot property he is today. One of them, understandably when his overall influence over recent French teams is taken into consideration, is Galthie.
However, the player Jauzion credits above all others for his rise is the man often left in the slipstream of the
ongoing legend that is Serge Blanco, Jean-Luc Sadourny, one of Colomiers' greatest players and probably the second best full-back ever to play for France.
"Jean-Luc taught me how to prepare for a match and then watching him or playing alongside him one was infected by the calm authority and flair he displayed. He was a master and I will forever be indebted to him."
Touchingly, while Sadourny could well fill the role of Jauzion's father figure on the pitch it was his real father who initially indoctrinated him into the ways of the sport of rugby. "He was a massive fan of Graulhet [a town situated around 80 kilometres from Toulouse in the Tarn region] and he used to take me to watch their matches. They weren't top-level affairs but they still got me hooked and as a result I started playing rugby when I was seven."
The infectious enthusiasm with which Jauzion plays the game will bolster him in times of hardship and disappointment and propel him to glory when the tide runs in his favour. It will unquestionably be to the advantage of both Toulouse and France in the months that lie ahead to have such a committed crew member on board.
Toulouse will take on Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals on April 10 at the Municipal Stadium in Toulouse.