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.

Sebastien Chabal

Out with a bang: Chabal celebrates winning the French Pro D2 title with Lyon last weekend

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.

Sebastien Chabal

Changing faces: Chabal clean-shaven at RWC 2003 and his caveman look four years later

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.

  • Luke

    Chabel represents everything I love about rugby.

    I agree he wasn’t the most skilled player or didn’t read the game well, as Johnny and BOD do (did).

    But his passion, leadership and brute strength is far more exciting and entertaining!!!

    Who wants to watch a tactical kicking style ping-pong game for 80 mins.

    Much rather a hard hitting intense game.

    Every team should have a Chabel, who may not make the whole 80 or to every ruck but will lift the team and spectators with a massive hit or great run.

    P.S. watch the highlights of Chable vs NZ on you tube, big time player who can lift a whole team to play their best and victory.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fergal.collins Fergal Collins

    All he`s saying is that he`s not a titan of the game and the hype that surrounds him isn’t justified, forgetting the comparisons with the greats. As an aside, all I ever saw from Chabal as a Muster fan was him getting rumbled in Thomond, and getting subbed off 2 years later in Stockport to chats of “go home Chabal, go home Chabal” after a totally useless display in apathy from him.

  • Charles McGillivray

    this article makes little or no sense….are you seriously criticising a man for not being as good as Jonny or BOD or for a player becoming a cult figure. Yes Jonny and BOD will go down as legends of the sport, two of the finest players to play the game, but that doesn’t mean other players can’t be loved and adored for what ever reason the fans decide. (even if it is cause they look like they fell out of a time machine)

    Firstly he is French, and the French I’m sure would love a French hero, a talisman, or are supporters not supposed to take allegiances? are we all supposed to go to the world cup, fawn over Dan Carter and then go home? and yes Yachvilli was a top player but I’m sure fans of the Honeybadger are all only supporting him due to his knowledge of how to get to the line and nothing at all to do with him going head over biscuit or working like one armed middle eastern men who seeks a living in the building trade……

    To have a pop a people for saying this about a man they admired just cause he wasn’t one of the best players is just absurd and extremely patronising, “oooo look at the silly people celebrating the career of a man who only played 61 times for france….” and yes kingsley jones may have talked of his weaknesses but as a saints fan is still remember chabal chipping our defense, regathering and rumbling over…..I’d love to see big samu do this but lets face it you’d here eeeeeoooorrrrrr quicker then Brian Habana with skates on.

    he, or the french mad men, did a lot for the development of the game in France which should be applauded, and if he, or Monsieur Draper, evoked a response and brought more people into the sport then brilliant, as ultimately that will have a far longer lasting legacy then performances on the pitch. The fact that a rugby news item is a main story is an great step in the development of the game and must be welcomed not smirked at.