Sunday, February 1, 2015

Samoa's 'Rochelais monster' adds beef to the French Roosters

Profile (in French) on La Rochelle captain Uino Atonio. Source: Pierre Ammiche

FORMER Samoan and New Zealand prop Uini Atonio - the man they call the "Rochelais monster" - looks set for his Six Nations debut, making the 23-man French squad for this Saturday's assignment in Paris which his coach predicts will be an emotional moment in the wake of the country's recent terrorism attacks.

The 24-year-old, born in Timaru and a former Samoan under-20 international, gained his residency eligibility last year after joining French club La Rochelle in 2011 and made his debut against Fiji in November.

Unio Atonio
He made three appearances for France in that international window and has held his favour with coach Philippe Saint-André.

He's unofficially the biggest man to pull on a French jersey. So big in fact, that they had to get a special jersey made to accommodate his 1.97-metre and 146-kilogram frame.

For comparison's sake that makes Atonio shorter than the Wallabies' Will Skelton (2.03m tall, weighing 135kg), lighter than former Wellington and Fiji prop Bill Cavubati (1.89m tall, weighing 165kg), but all-around bigger than All Blacks loosie Jerome Kaino (1.96m tall, weighing 113kg).

Atonio has a chance to push his World Cup claims in a tight five Saint Andre believes is as good as any in the championship.

The French have named five props for the assignment against Scotland, who are coached by New Zealander Vern Cotter and was until last year coach of the high-flying French Top 14 team Clermont.

Emotional occasion
Saint-Andre is predicting an emotional occasion in Paris and believes the match will be another opportunity for France to unite following the spate of terrorism attacks that have claimed 17 lives.

"I am definitely sure the Marseillaise against Scotland will be very emotional," Saint-Andre said in announcing his squad.

"It was a very, very tough time, but everybody stuck together and demonstrated how proud we are of our country and very proud of our different cultures.

"All the crowd and French public will be 150 percent behind the French team. French society has people from different origins. It is nice to see the team working like this in a good way and the team is representative of French society.

"It will be a nice moment to enjoy being together, to show our pride in being French.

"Sport is nice in this way. It allows us to take this moment to share and to be part of the community."

France were desperate for a better Six Nations, not having won since 2010 and finishing fourth or worse for the last three years.

Tight tournament
Saint-Andre senses improvement coming at the right time, but also knows the quality of the championship.

"I think our front five is as strong as England and Ireland. But as we get closer to the World Cup it looks like all the countries get closer.

"It is very difficult to say who will win the Six Nations. Four countries can win the tournament.

'"We need to be more precise with our set-piece. Last year we missed a penalty against Ireland and that was the difference between finishing first and fourth. It shows how tight things are at the top level." - Agencies

France squad:
Forwards: Uini Atonio, Eddy Ben Arous, Alexandre Menini, Nicolas Mas, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado, Benjamin Kayser, Pascal Papé, Romain Taofifenua, Yoann Maestri, Thierry Dusautoir, Bernard Le Roux, Damien Chouly, Loann Goujon.

Backs: Rory Kockott, Morgan Parra, Camille Lopez, Rémi Talès, Mathieu Bastareaud, Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget, Teddy Thomas, Scott Spedding.

Unio Atonio in full flight for France against Fiji in Marseilles last November.

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