There is more than a convenient alliteration in the expression ‘French flair’. For as long as rugby has been played, the French have played it with levels of élan and joie de vivre that no other nation has been able to match.

A golden thread of scintillating back play runs through the history of the sport in France, populated by such legendary players as Jo Maso, Pierre Villepreux, Pierre Berbizier, Serge Blanco, Patrice Lagisquet and Thomas Castaignede – right up to Antoine Dupont, the genius scrum half of today.

And yet, for all the pretty patterns those players could weave, for all their bewitching, bamboozling brilliance, they represent only one side of the distinctly French coin. Flip that centime over and you enter the far harsher world of French forward play, a place where grizzled men make their marks on a spectrum that stretches from low-level menace to outright thuggery. And beyond.

In his playing days, Gregor Townsend, now Scotland coach, was drawn to France by his romantic vision of adventurous back play. Signing for Brive, he was in for a rude awakening. In the changing room minutes before his first match for the club, he was astonished to see fights break out among the forwards as Laurent Seigne, the former France prop who was head coach at the time, fired them up for the battle ahead. Before another game he noticed that blood was pouring from the head of Pascal Bomati, the Brive winger. It turned out that Seigne had headbutted him.

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In France they call it ‘le jeu dur’. And while there have been plenty of French forwards who play hard but fair, there have been quite a few more who weren’t greatly bothered by the fairness bit. Remarkably, or maybe not, a good number found their way onto the international stage, where their malevolent habits were revealed to a far wider audience.

Lock forward Paul Willemse staked a claim for infamy when he was sent off after collecting two yellow cards against Ireland last weekend. Yet Willemse cuts an almost angelic figure alongside some of his predecessors in the France team. Here, we pick six of the best of them – or should that be the worst of them – in our rogues gallery of the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know.

Alain Carminati

On the eve of Scotland’s clash with France at Murrayfield in 1990, one former Scottish international described Carminati, the Beziers flanker, as “a bit of a headcase.” It was a prescient observation. Two minutes into the second half Carminati decided to practise his footwork by stamping on the head of the grounded John Jeffrey. Compounding his offence with a dash of boneheaded stupidity, he did so straight in front of English referee Fred Howard, who ordered him off. Scotland had led 3-0 at that point, but Carminati’s absence helped them pull away for their 21-0 win.

Pascal Ondarts

For some bizarre reason. Ondarts was 30 before the French selectors decided to give him a cap. Appropriately, they did so for France’s clash with New Zealand in November 1986, a match of eye-watering brutality that has since entered the annals as ‘the Battle of Nantes’. Ondarts, who could play prop or hooker, was no psychopath, but he had a fiery nature and a gift for intimidation. Jason Leonard described him as “the toughest and hardest prop I ever played against.”

Michel Palmie

The huge lock had an innocent face that belied some nasty habits. He revelled in the enforcer role in the French team of the 1970s. Palmie was seemingly immune to pain – at least the pain he inflicted on others. One report said he had ‘punched and gouged his way from Paris to Toulouse’. His Test career ended in 1978 after he was banned for punching Armand Clerc – an attack that left the Racing player partially blinded in one eye.

Gerard Cholley

It would be fair to say that Cholley came into Test rugby with a bit of a reputation. The former heavyweight boxer and paratrooper then set about gilding it and soon became known as ‘The Master of Menace’. The tag understated his penchant for violence, an enthusiasm most vividly demonstrated in France’s 23-3 win against Scotland in 1977 when he floored four opponents with punches, knocking out two of them. Cholley’s behaviour embarrassed French Federation president Albert Ferassse, who apologised to the battered Scots at the after-match dinner.

Alain Esteve

The so-called ‘Beast of Beziers’ certainly looked the part. Standing 6ft 8in and heavily bearded, the mighty lock left his mark - literally – on a succession of bruised opponents in his 1970s heyday. Esteve had a particular fondness for battering Wales hooker Bobby Windsor. Ahead of one clash with France, Windsor reportedly told his wife: “Look at my face, love, because it isn't going to look like this when I get back.”