Wednesday 7 December 2016

A thoroughbred with notable staying power

Aurelien Rougerie's many setbacks have not stopped him from thriving for Les Bleus, writes Eddie Butler

Published 13/02/2011 | 05:00

It was said at the time, if memory serves, that a slightly disturbing amount of Soviet science went into the development of Valery Borzov, the sprinter who won gold medals in the 100 metres and 200 metres at the Munich Olympics of 1972. He was not so much a wonder of human procreation as of laboratory manufacture, the west thought a bit sniffily.

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Well, it may be said that our end of Europe knows how to fish in the gene pool, too. Mix the DNAs of Jacques Rougerie, a prop known as the 'Cube' and good enough to play for Montferrand (as Clermont Auvergne were previously known) and once for France, against Japan in 1973, and Christine Dulac, basketball star of Clermont Universite Club who played more than 100 times for France, and it should come as no surprise that their offspring emerge strapping and athletic.

And so their son is Aurelien Rougerie, 6ft 3in, 16.5 stone and set to play at outside-centre against Ireland today. Rougerie burst on the scene in 2001, when he was 20, playing in the final of the French club championship with Montferrand. Like his father in 1970, he lost, although by a more agreeable score: 34-22 to Toulouse, (Jacques had lost 3-0 to La Voulte Sportif).

Defeat for Montferrand in the final was nothing new. But not even this ongoing failure of the flagship club in the rugby-mad Auvergne could hold back young Rougerie. He played for France in the autumn of 2001 as they beat Australia and South Africa. He was part of the Six Nations Grand Slam team of 2002.

Not even serious injury could halt him for long. In August 2002, in a pre-season warm-up game, he was caught in the throat by an elbow belonging to the Wasps and England hooker Phil Greening. Three operations to his larynx and trachea left Rougerie slightly deeper of pitch, but at least back on it, part of a French squad full of his Montferrand mates: Tony Marsh, David Bory, Jimmy Marlu and Gerald Merceron.

It was just as Bernard Laporte, the coach of France at two World Cups, in 2003 and 2007, was beginning to single him out as somebody special, the French "horse," stronger and faster than England's Ben Cohen, that things started to go wrong. France were well beaten by England in the World Cup semi-final in Sydney, and thereafter Rougerie faced competition from Christophe Dominici and Cedric Heymans for a place on the wing.

If there was nothing wrong once the ball was in his hands there were a few nagging doubts about his defence. He did not make the team that famously beat New Zealand in the quarter-final, or the one that lost to England in the semi.

The replacement of Laporte with Marc Lievremont might have reopened a pathway to the France team, especially since the new coach was prepared, it seemed, to have a look at just about anyone who could lace up a pair of boots. But, having taken a peek at Rougerie in 2008, Lievremont dropped him.

This failure to make progress at international level coincided with the ongoing travails of Montferrand in the club championship. From 2007 they lost three successive finals: to Stade Francais, Toulouse and Perpignan. As captain of the club each time, Rougerie was a major player in the Auvergne's sad saga.

Last season they reached the final for a fourth straight year, meeting Perpignan again -- and lo and behold, L'Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne finally bucked the monkey off their back. They won 19-6.

And having reclaimed a place in the French team in last season's Six Nations, only to be knocked out after all of two minutes against their first opponents Scotland, Rougerie went on tour with France and scored a try against South Africa, his 22nd in internationals. Even better, when it came to the autumn, Lievremont tried Rougerie in the position he now occupied with his club, outside-centre. Not many survived the ordeal against Australia unscathed but Rougerie was singled out less than most.

His performance against Scotland in round one earned him nothing but plaudits. While Wales, for example, were roundly panned for kicking away promising possession against England, Rougerie dared change turnover ball into a grubber, hit firm and low behind Scotland. Wales's kicks came to nothing; Rougerie's bounced up perfectly for Vincent Clerc, obeying the fundamental rule: if you must kick, it must work.

Today in Dublin he faces the master, Brian O'Driscoll, who has just about everything on his side: experience, form and class. But, as the 'Horse' might say, when it comes to thoroughbreds, it is all in the breeding. No Soviet science here, just French romance.

Observer

Sunday Indo Sport

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