GAVIN MORTIMER, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says France tighthead prop Nicolas Mas has earned the respect of his opponents.

To Didier Retière, coach of the French forwards, he’s the ‘cornerstone’; to Bernard Goutta, coach of the Perpignan forwards, he’s the ‘shepherd’; and to his mates he’s just plain ‘Nico’. But whatever you call Nicolas Mas, there’s no escaping the fact that the 31-year-old Frenchman is one of the world’s best tightheads. For sure, he’s big and strong but Mas is also sharp and smart, a prop who plays with his brain as much as his brawn. We’d call it ‘streetwise’; the French prefer ‘savoir-faire’.

When England manager Martin Johnson was asked about Mas on the eve of their Six Nations clash last season, his grudging respect for the Frenchman shone through.

‘We have to be pretty strong on the loosehead side of the scrum,’ said Johnson. ‘That Nicolas Mas … he likes to come into the gap and make it hard for opposition hookers. We need to stop him doing that, and we need to stop him all game.’

Johnson’s words were echoed by Andrew Sheridan, England’s gargantuan prop who knows a thing or two about scrummaging.

‘I’ve faced Mas maybe three times, and he works extremely well with William Servat, the hooker, in disrupting the opposition set piece,’ said Sheridan.

Add an extra ‘s’ on to the 112kg Mas and that just about sums him up, but off the pitch you’d be hard pressed to find a more affable man.

June was a month of R and R for the 32 players selected for France’s preliminary World Cup squad, a time to chill with family between the end of the Top 14 and the start of the World Cup training camp. But when SA Rugby magazine contacted Mas he was only too happy to chat, sharing his thoughts on everything from Catalan culture to those dastardly English.

Like many of the Perpignan squad, Mas is an out-and-out Catalan, coming from that ruggedly beautiful region that straddles the French-Spanish border. It’s a proud province and the roots are deep for Mas, which is why he’s been at Perpignan since 1999.

‘Loyalty is very important to me,’ explains Mas, who won the first of his 44 Test caps in 2003. ‘I’ve been at Perpignan all my career and it would be very difficult to leave the club because this is my region. My family and my friends live here and I’m very proud of it. And also, Perpignan is a great team to play for with a strong spirit.’

That’s not to say the people of Perpignan are parochial. Percy Montgomery may not have been a hit in 2007-08, scoring just 95 points for the French club in 14 appearances before fleeing back home, but the likes of Scotland lock Nathan Hines and the former Stormers centre Gavin Hume have left their mark on the club during their stay. And former England prop Perry Freshwater is about to start his ninth season at Perpignan, irrefutable proof that the club welcomes those who are prepared to embrace the proud rugby culture.

‘Perry is more Catalan than English now!’ says Mas with a laugh. ‘He’s a great example of a player who’s come here and become one of the family. He’s played in New Zealand and Leicester but he’s most at home here, and we’re proud to have him.’

Mas ensured himself a place in Perpignan folklore two years ago when he captained them to their first Top 14 title in 55 years, a 22-13 defeat of Clermont at the Stade de France.

‘That was without a doubt the best moment of my rugby career,’ reflects Mas. ‘To be the one who lifted the shield was an unforgettable moment and to be able to share it with a generation of players who had all come up through the club together – players like David Marty and Jean-Pierre Pérez – made it extra special. It’s not often your dreams become reality.’

Not that Mas had much time to savour the triumph; the very next day he and the rest of the French Test players who’d played in the final were on a plane bound for New Zealand. Five days after touching down on Kiwi soil, Mas lined up for France against the All Blacks in Dunedin. The pundits predicted a walk in the park for New Zealand but France stunned them 27-22, and a week later almost pinched the two-Test series before going down 14-10 in Wellington.

‘I enjoyed 2009, it was a good year,’ says Mas with a smile. ‘To follow the Top 14 victory with a defeat of the All Blacks in New Zealand was fantastic. And then we beat South Africa in Toulouse [in November].’

The year that followed wasn’t too bad either, as France won their first Grand Slam in six years. Best of all, the decisive match was in Paris against England, who in recent years have been France’s bête noire, beating them in two World Cup semi-finals and in three consecutive Six Nations encounters. In Paris in 2010 France won 12-10, and though the English scored the only try of the match it was in the set piece that the game was won. Such was the French dominance in the scrum that Mas was named Man of the Match, a satisfying reward for a player who more often than not ends up on the losing side   against England. Worryingly for France, if pool results go according to form in New Zealand – with the French finishing second to the All Blacks in Pool A and England winning Pool B – the sides will meet in the quarters.

‘We know there’s a chance we might face England,’ says Mas, ‘and if we do we’re going to have to make sure we’re well prepared. They’re a big, strong side, well organised, and it’s always a huge confrontation when you play against England. Above all, we need to be mentally strong against them; in recent games we’ve almost had a blockage against the English, as if we didn’t believe we could win.’

England gained revenge for that 2010 defeat by beating France in this year’s Six Nations, but that wasn’t the result that made front page headlines in the French papers; rather it was the astonishing 22-21 loss to Italy in Rome, the first time France had lost to the Italians in the tournament.

‘What can I say?’ says Mas with a rueful chuckle. ‘It was a bad day at the office. It was actually a disaster. Italy are getting better every season but that’s no excuse. We didn’t play well, but we didn’t play well throughout the Six Nations.’

After that Italy defeat Marc Lièvremont pété les plombs, as the French would say. In other words the French coach blew a fuse, accusing his players of ‘cowardice’ during the match. Lièvremont added that some of the squad had kissed goodbye their chances of going to New Zealand and when he named his preliminary World Cup squad he was true to his word, axing Sébastian Chabal and Yannick Jauzion. Asked months later what he thinks of Lièvremont’s comments, Mas thinks carefully about his response.

‘He was very upset at the time and used some strong words. Perhaps they were too strong. They were certainly hard to take, but then we didn’t play well.’

Mas promises he’ll be raring to go in New Zealand after a month of rest followed by a meticulously planned training regime at various camps across France, and no doubt he will have been fine-tuning his scrummaging technique to ensure he’s ready to face the All Blacks at Eden Park on 24 September.

The memory of the last time France met the All Blacks in the World Cup still makes Mas smile – that heart-thumping 20-18 quarter-final victory in Cardiff. With France having also ended New Zealand’s World Cup dreams in spectacular style in 1999, they’re becoming something of a bogey team for the Blacks. So does Mas think they can make it a hat-trick of wins?

‘Why not? We’ve put the Six Nations behind us and by the time we play New Zealand we’ll have been training together for weeks. We’re confident, and we know we have the talent. And who knows what the pressure of being the host country will do to New Zealand? Having the tournament in your own country has advantages and disadvantages as France discovered four years ago.’

Mas is disarmingly modest about his standing in the game. He might be a cult hero in Perpignan but he’s at his happiest when he’s at home with his wife and two boys. Being separated from them will be far harder for him than facing the All Blacks.

It’s left to others to underline Mas’s importance, with Didier Retière describing him as the ‘cornerstone’ of the French pack and the ‘father’ of the team. Bernard Goutta of Perpignan says he’s the ‘shepherd’ of his team, with the players flocking to him whenever he has something to say.

But the last word on Mas comes from that legendary prop forward Jean-Pierre Garuet, himself the cornerstone of the French scrum throughout the 1980s and who played in the 1987 World Cup final against New Zealand. In Mas he sees a player at the pinnacle of his profession.

‘The average scrum lasts between six and eight seconds,’ says Garuet, ‘so those first couple of seconds are crucial. Nicolas hits the scrum like an arrow hits the target. He’s an archer and he knows exactly where to make the greatest impact on his opponent.’

And against the All Blacks Mas will be aiming for the bullseye.

– This article first appeared in the September issue of SA Rugby magazine.