Apr 03, 2015
Saracens - A French Connection
Saracens travel to the French capital this weekend to face Parisian side Racing Metro 92 in the quarter final of the European Champions Cup.
Over the years Saracens have been home to some of French Rugby’s brightest and most decorated stars.
We take a look at few players who have pulled on both the Saracens and French jerseys over the years.
Certain to make any Saracens fans dream team, Thomas Castaignede’s impact during his seven year affiliation with Saracens cannot be understated.
Capped 54 times in a 12 year period by the French national team, the versatile Frenchmen wowed players and crowds alike with his flair, running game and kicking ability.
The diminutive Frenchmen began his career at Stade Montois before signing with the South of France giants Toulouse in 1994. At Toulouse he helped the side to three French Championships in successive seaons, and was a member of the clubs inaugural Heineken Cup winning side.
After three trophy laden years he moved to local rivals Castres Olympique, and after three seasons at the Stade Pierre-Antoine he crossed the channel to sign for Saracens. In his time in the Red & Black Castaignede clocked up over 100 appearances for the club, and will be remembered as one of Saracens most recognisable and popular figures of the professional era.
Castaignede retired in 2007 after a swansong with the National Team at a home World Cup and now works in the financial industry.
Renowned for his pace, handling skills and intelligence, Philippe Sella was undoubtedly one of the most exciting players France have ever produced.
Sella played the majority of his club career for French club Agen, helping them to the French national championship in 1982 and 1988.
In 1995, the classy centre hung up his international boots after making a record 111 appearances for Les Blues.
Not long after his decision Sella made his way to Saracens. Despite playing in the autumn of career, Sella’s arrival for the London in 1996 signalled the exciting new era of professional Rugby Union.
He was key to the clubs title challenge in the 1997/98 seaon, and despite injury restricting his appearances for the club, he was a try scorer in the 1998 Tetley's Bitter Cup Final (which Saracens won, beating Wasps 48-18).
Capped 32 times by France in his career Alain Penaud made his name at Brive where he captained the team to two Heineken Cup finals in as many years.
Penaud would experience both the ecstacy and despair of professional sport in those finals as in 1997 he captained the side to a 28 – 9 victory over the Leicester Tigers at the Cardiff Arms Park. A year later Penaud and his Brive side would lose their grip on the trophy, losing to Bath. In 1998 he left Brive to join Saracens on a three-year deal, as a replacement for the departing Michael Lynagh.
He instantly endeared himself to the Fez faithful with a try-scoring debut against Northampton in a 34-7 win. Saracens finished 3rd that season, with Penaud making 24 league appearances but due to family reasons he moved back to France at the end of the season, signing for Toulouse where he produced some of his finest form earning himself a recall to the French squad in 2000.
He returned to Brive in 2002, and had spells at Stade Francais and Lyon before retiring in 2007.
Saracens signed Abdel Benazzi in the summer of 2001 as the highly ambitious north Londoners looked to mount an assault on breaking into European Rugby.
The 78 capped French international who scored nine tries for France in a glittering career signed for the Vicarage Road side from Agen in the autumn of his playing career.
The giant lock began his international career with his native Morocco but was swiftly spotted by the French selectors and made his debut for Les Blues against Australia in 1990. He played in three World Cups for France and was a member of the France squad that reached the final of the 1999 World Cup, where they lost to Australia.
Benazzi captained France during the 1997 Five Nations and twice won the Grand Slam before making his final international appearance against England in April 2001. At club level he represented Agen and Saracens.
He skippered Saracens during his time with the club before hanging up his boots in the summer of 2003 after failing to make the French World Cup squad for then upcoming Rugby World Cup in Australia.
A highly respected and decorated French front rower, the signing of Raphael Ibanez from under the noses of Gloucester in the wake of the 2003 World Cup was seen as a major coup for Saracens heading into the 2003/4 season.
The French hooker’s reputation within the game is unquestionable. Prior to his move across the channel he won successive Grand Slams with France in 1997 and 1998 and led them to the World Cup Final in 1999.
Formerly of Dax (his hometown club of which Ibanez proudly represented before spells at Perpignan and Castres), he left France and to join countrymen Abdel Benazzi and Thomas Castaignede at Vicarage Road.
The move to Watford unfortunately didn’t work out. With then Saracens director of rugby Steve Diamond preferring hooker Matt Cairns (who Diamond brought back to Vicarage Road from Sale Sharks), to the Frenchman – meaning Ibanez only made 30 appearances for the club in a two year stint. With the imminent arrival of Ireland and Leinster hooker Shane Byrne in the summer of 2005, Ibanez and Saracens agreed to part ways, with the Frenchman moving to High Wycombe to link up with Wasps in the autumn of his playing career.
The combative Basque hooker began to show his undoubted pedigree during his time at Adams Park. Ibanez led Wasps to glory in the 2007 Heineken Cup final at Twickenham and made a shock return to the international fold when he was re-named French captain by Bernard Laporte.
A cornerstone of France’s pack during the late 1990’s and early noughties, Christian Califano played for both Stade Toulousain and Saracens in a glittering career.
Born and raised in Toulon, Califano turned out for his local club before moving to Bourges in 1991. After one season at Bourges Caifano moved to French giants Stade Toulousain where he carved out a reputation as one of Europe’s most esteemed front-rowers.
At Toulouse, Califano won six French Championships and one Heineken Cup in a spell where he would win 65 caps for his country. In 2002 Califano became France’s first export to play in the Southern Hemispheres Super Rugby competition, when the robust loose-head signed for Auckland Blues.
On his return to Europe Califano opted to join Saracens, who had recently signed his former national team colleagues Abdel Benazzi and Thomas Castaingede. His time at the club would only last for one season, as after making 13 Premiership appearances for Sarries, Califano moved back to his homeland signing for Agen.
The two time Grand slam winning prop spent three seasons at the French club before returning to England when he signed for Gloucester Rugby. Califano retired in 2008 and after hanging up the boots, he has competed in Dakhar Rally and now presents a sports quiz on French Television.
Lacroix started his rugby career at US Dax in the French Ligue Nationale de Rugby. After the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he joined Natal Sharks in South Africa where he helped them to two Currie Cups in 1995 and 1996.
He then left South Africa for England where he played for Harlequin F.C. and Saracens F.C. In 2000 he left Saracens to join USA Perpignan in France just as Thomas Castaignède signed to take up a position. Lacroix, a qualified physiotherapist, wanted to work in this domain and only played part-time rugby for Perpignan. He finished his rugby playing career at Castres Olympique at the age of 37.