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Peter Bills: One of the world’s greatest hookers, William Servat is gunning for a shot at Ireland

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France hooker Wiliam Servat is tackled by Scotland's Alastair Kellock during their Six Natins clash last weekend. Photo: Getty Images

France hooker Wiliam Servat is tackled by Scotland's Alastair Kellock during their Six Natins clash last weekend. Photo: Getty Images

France hooker Wiliam Servat is tackled by Scotland's Alastair Kellock during their Six Natins clash last weekend. Photo: Getty Images

They call him 'La Buche' -- the log -- and in rugby terms, the commandant of the forwards. A phenomenon; 'un homme de valeur' too.

And if respect by peers and opponents alike is any measure of his status, William Servat is indeed a mighty foe.

French rugby men revere few players more than their front-row warriors. Here are to be found the qualities that underpin the whole game -- courage, dedication, a disdain for physical pain and a relentless commitment to the team ethos.

And in the world of hookers, Servat excels. One glimpse of his physique tells you this is a man moulded and prepared for combat -- strong, brawny arms, thighs like oak trees, a nose with more deviations than the M50 and a no-nonsense expression that underlines the seriousness of the modern professional game.

Servat turned 33 this week, but the celebrations were muted. As ever, he put the needs of his team -- preparing for Sunday's game against Ireland in Dublin -- ahead of personal affairs. It has long been so. His loose-head prop colleague at Toulouse, the South African Daan Human, who has played seven seasons with him, tells a revealing story about Servat.

"He is the type of guy that, if there are any social activities, he will join in, share them. But he will be the one who says, 'this is a good moment for the team to come together'. He always thinks of the team first."

Servat follows in a long, distinguished line of French hookers: Jean de Gregorio, Jean-Michel Cabanier, Rene Benesis, Alain Paco, Philippe Dintrans, Daniel Dubroca, Raphael Ibanez and such like. These are men who, beaten black and blue every week, continue to play the game without fanfare. Theirs is a world of dark, sweaty, murky parts, where rogue fists still rearrange body parts and timid referees peer in with only a scant knowledge of its inner workings and tribal ways.

Not without reason did Scotland coach Andy Robinson call Servat probably the best hooker in the world after last weekend's Six Nations match in Paris. But the praise brought only faint smiles from his Toulouse colleagues -- they have been saying that about Servat for some time.

Born at Saint-Gaudens, in the heart of the Midi-Pyrenees, he introduced himself to senior rugby in the Heineken Cup way back in 1998. Since then, some fearsome injuries have derailed his career at times, yet his list of achievements demands immense respect -- 33 caps for France, with Grand Slams in 2004 and 2010; three Heineken Cup triumphs with Toulouse in 2003, 2005 and 2010 and French Championship titles in 1999, 2001 and 2008.

But medals and titles, mere baubles, offer scant insight into the real man. Suffice to say, strong men who know him metaphorically doff their caps in acknowledgement of his considerable attributes.

"He will always go forward, he never goes backwards even in a tackle as he is so explosive," Human says. "And he is one of the key figures in the French team. He is quiet, yet good at motivation. Even though I am older than him, he knows how to switch me on for a game.

"It is a pleasure playing and scrummaging with him. He is the toughest scrummaging hooker I have ever seen. Luckily, I have never had to play against him. That would be a nightmare -- you would not want to have him in front of you. No-one is as strong as him."

His value, to club and country, goes without saying. "All the set-pieces are important, but a good, strong scrum is vital, especially in France," continues Human. "The scrum is the heart of the French game. They think if you can be competitive at scrum time, the rest of your game can function. Without it, you have little chance."

But beyond his scrummaging power, Servat brings so much more to the team. His throwing in to the line-out is consistent, one of the best Human says he has seen. But it is his all-round game that so impresses.

As the Scots were reminded in Paris, Servat cheerfully fulfils his duties in the loose and, ball in hand, he is a hard man to stop on the charge. Bull-like in strength with a physique of 6ft 1in and 16st 3lb, he constantly makes hard yards in broken play.

But naturally, it is in the scrum where his bull neck, squat frame and power cause such difficulties. With his attitude of total commitment and this formidably strong figure, Servat long since saw off the challenge of Stade Francais hooker Dimitri Szarzewski for the French No 2 jersey.

Robinson, Human believes, is right; Servat is now probably the best in the world. Not least because, as the South African says, Servat is like having another prop in the front-row, but a guy who is stronger than the two props next to him.

befuddled

Thus, it makes every sense for him to have linked up with his close friend Trevor Brennan and opened a new pub/restaurant in Place Saint Cyprien, Toulouse, recently. Imagine having one over the eight after a long evening and, befuddled in the brain, starting to argue and play the macho man against those two...

When Brennan was excoriated for the notorious act of indiscipline that ended his career, Servat brought the other Toulouse players together to insist the Dubliner continue to receive their backing. That is a measure of the man.

Servat's other business investments include running a private ambulance service, together with his father. He is, his colleagues tell you, a thinking man.

"Above all," says Human, "he is a really top guy, and a team man. He never thinks what he can get out of a situation; only the team matters to him."

And hunting. In his remaining time away from the game, Servat loves nothing better than tracking 'les sangliers', the wild boar that roam through the forests of south-west France.

These are fearsome creatures. Yet, equally, the man stalking them is a fearsome prospect. Ireland's front-row forwards beware.

Irish Independent