After Sébastien Chabal's retirement, RW assesses how he became an iconic figure
A GREAT of the French game recently announced his retirement. In 61 appearances for France, he won two Grand Slams, played in two World Cups and scored 373 points. Only Christophe Lamaison, with 380, has scored more points for France than Dimitri Yachvili, yet when the Biarritz scrum-half let it be known last month that he was hanging up his boots, the news came and went with little reaction in the French media.
On Monday Sébastien Chabal used a live press conference on L’Equipe TV to address the French nation and tell them that he, too, was retiring. This time the response was extraordinary. There was a torrent of tweets in his honour, TV and radio news bulletins ran it as their main sports story and newspaper websites looked back on his career with affection bordering on adulation.
The international careers of Yachvili and Chabal ran parallel. The former was first capped in 2002 and played the last of his 61 Tests in 2012, a year after he appeared for France in the World Cup final. Chabal made his first appearance in 2000 and won his 62nd and final cap in the 2011 Six Nations against Italy, in what was a humiliating defeat in Rome.
The last time Chabal was in the news for anything he’d done on the rugby field was January this year when he was banned for three weeks after knocking out Marc Giroud of Agen in a Pro D2 match. It was a petulant punch from Chabal, the act perhaps of a man raging against the dying of the light. Not that the light ever shone that brightly for Chabal.
He’s never been a world-class player, even during those heady days of 2007 when France hosted the World Cup and Chabal was the face of the tournament. At least Gavin Henson, the other overhyped player of the last decade, had moments of brilliance on the rugby field in between the celebrity appearances and product endorsements. But not Chabal, who struggled to last 80 minutes of a Test match and was most effective as an impact player in the last quarter (29 of his 62 caps came off the bench).
The 6ft 4in muscleman liked to think of himself as a loose forward but at Test level he was no such thing, as England so ruthlessly demonstrated at Twickenham in the 2009 Six Nations. England slaughtered the French 34-10 that day and as one newspaper commented they were “in dreamland from the moment Riki Flutey stripped the ball from Sébastien Chabal and set in motion the brilliant move which culminated in Mark Cueto’s try”. Flutey, if need you reminding, was a 5ft 10in centre.
Chabal could tackle and he was also pretty good on the charge, but he had a habit of losing the ball in contact and he was never an astute reader of the game. As his then coach at Sale, Kingsley Jones, said of Chabal in 2007: “He’ll get the ball, run through six people, then walk for two minutes. We know his weaknesses, but play to his strengths. When he goes forward or makes a big tackle he inspires the whole team.”
Ultimately it wasn’t the big tackles that made Chabal’s name, it was the big beard. For the first five seasons of his international career Chabal was smooth-cheeked and short-haired and no one in France paid him much attention, even less so when in 2004 he moved to Sale Sharks. The following year he resolved to let his hair and beard grow until the birth of his first child, but it’s said his wife liked the look so much he threw away the razor for good.
By the time of the 2007 World Cup, Chabal was back in the French squad after an 18-month absence and his new look caught the eye of the French marketing companies charged with whipping up interest for the tournament. They needed a hard man – better, a caveman – to capture the essence of French rugby. Step forward Chabal.
“Women are sick of pretty, metrosexual new men,” explained one French women as Chabalmania swept France. “Sebastien is that absolute opposite – that’s why we love him. He is a symbol of old-school manliness.”
This manliness was soon making him money, lots of it, what with the launch of his clothing range, wine label, a hotel-restaurant and even a Chabal cuddly toy. As recently as January he was dressing up as a fairy in a bizarre TV advert for a currency exchange company.
In Chabal’s defence he’s also given a great deal of his time, touring France to promote rugby and press the flesh with people who, but for him, might otherwise never have taken a blind bit of interest in the sport. So for that he deserves credit, as he does for all the autographs he’s patiently signed for well-wishers at airports and restaurants.
But to suggest, as the presenter of L’Equipe TV did prior to Monday’s press conference, that Chabal is a ‘Monument to Rugby’ is patently absurd. If that were the case, then what would that make Brian O’Driscoll and Jonny Wilkinson, both of whom also sign off at the end of this season? They are monuments to rugby; Chabal is a monument to marketing.