There are few players in Six Nations history that have generated quite the same buzz as Sebastien Chabal.
Each time he received the ball, the atmosphere changed. Some fans drew breath, others squealed with excitement – but everyone was captivated and waiting to be amazed.
To watch the versatile French forward running in full flight was perhaps one of the most thrilling Six Nations sights during the 2000s, but he had plenty of brains and well as brawn.
Chabal may be best remembered for those galloping runs where he’d shake off multiple defenders despite it appearing almost physically impossible to stay upright and keep going.
But his surprising dexterity only added to his legend – especially as it clashed with his Caveman persona that was built on his wild hair and beard and reputation for bone-jarring tackles. A quick Google search reveals many YouTube tribute videos, and each one is worth a watch. There’s no-one quite like him.
To celebrate the Six Nations’ 20th anniversary, you can create your Greatest XV on the Guinness Six Nations app and choose from more than 150 players, including Sebastien Chabal.
Chabal only started 12 Six Nations matches in 11 years but ask any casual rugby fan to name a France player during the 2000s, and the chances are Chabal would be one that almost immediately springs to mind.
He was a game changer before the term became widely used, capable of flipping a match France’s way just through his power, surprising speed and relentlessness. It is no coincidence that he won two Championship titles, one of which being a Grand Slam, without starting a match – such was his importance and impact from the bench.
He finished his international career in 2011, with 62 caps and 33 starts, almost equally split between the second and back rows.
Born in south-east France, Chabal was a late bloomer on the rugby field.
His father worked in a garage and Chabal followed him into engineering, studying mechanics before moving on to work as a milling machine operator.
It was while there that his rugby career started to gain traction, first while playing for local side Bourgoin and then with the France national team.
In the inaugural Six Nations, Chabal made his international debut aged just 22, starting at flanker in a 28-16 victory at Scotland – a match where his fellow flanker Olivier Magne scored two tries.
That initially appeared to be a one-off as he was quickly discarded for the rest of the Championship, not appearing again for Les Bleus until the summer of 2001, when he featured in two Test matches against South Africa and a third against New Zealand.
At this point, Chabal was used as cover at blindside flanker and No.8 and he didn’t make another Six Nations appearance until 2003, when he established himself as a key squad member and played in defeats to England and Ireland and a victory against Scotland.
Head coach Bernard Laporte did include Chabal in his 2003 World Cup squad, handing him two appearances against Japan and USA. But just as it looked like he might break through and become a Test starter, he struggled to kick on and made just five more appearances between 2003-2007.
BIRTH OF THE CAVEMAN
Domestically, Chabal upped sticks and moved to England in 2004 – making home in the north-west with Sale Sharks.
As he once quipped in an interview with the Telegraph in 2017: “When I arrived in Sale, Pete Anglesea was number eight. After I arrived, he didn’t play anymore.”
To say Chabal became a cult hero is an understatement. His ability for the spectacular was quickly apparent, while his iconic look was beginning to take shape.
It all led to a France recall for the 2007 Championship and the beginning of a key year for Les Bleus – who would go on to host the World Cup in the autumn.
France were scheduled to open up their Six Nations defence against Italy, a team with a ferocious pack.
But Chabal was too big, too strong and too powerful for the Azzurri to contain as he scored two tries – his first for France.
For the first, he powered through three tackles to dot the ball down, while for his second he popped up on scrum-half Pierre Mignoni’s shoulder to drift in for a simple second. He was later named man of the match.
France went on to win the 2007 Championship, with Chabal making three appearances in all, before he was converted to a lock ahead of the World Cup.
Another rampaging run and try against England in a warm-up match brought Twickenham to its feet and cemented Chabal’s place in his second World Cup squad.
He was on the bench as France were upset by Argentina in the opener but started their second match against Namibia, scoring two more tries – including one ridiculous effort where he sprinted in from 50 metres, knocking defenders aside as he smashed his way through.
By this point, he was perhaps the most feared replacement in the game, and he so nearly took France to the World Cup final with a breathless cameo off the bench in the semi-final against England, only for Brian Ashton’s men to just hold on for a narrow victory by stopping him short of the try-line on two occasions.
A FOND FAREWELL
Chabal missed the 2008 Six Nations but did feature for France in both the summer and autumn, before starting four of their five 2009 Championship matches – scoring one try against Italy.
Injury hampered him the following year but he managed to play in three matches off the bench as France waltzed to a third Championship Grand Slam, and four the following year as England regained the trophy.
Chabal started at No.8 against Italy in Round 5, his last international appearance, while his club career continued for three more seasons.
After leaving Sale in 2009, he featured for Racing 92 and Lyon – hanging up his boots for good in 2014.
However, he remains one of the Championship’s most iconic players and a French legend.