April 03, 2003. France's build up to the 2003 World League will step up a gear this month when coach Philippe Blain puts his talented team through an intensive training programme. Two training courses are scheduled at the National Centre of Volleyball in Montpellier, France, Blain's home town where the Tunisian national side will be used as sparring-partners.
France then take on Belgium in two friendly matches before their campaign to qualify for the European Championships starts in Finland at the beginning of May against Greece, Romania and the host country.
With the World League starting in late May, it is that type of intensive build up that will see France emerge as series contenders. It is also giving Blain, who has been head coach of France since February 2001, a reputation as one of the best in the world.
Alain Geles, who coached Blain during his early playing days at Montpellier, says with Blain's playing pedigree he believes France will improve on their third place finish at the Worlds.
"He was good at everything on the field," Geles said. "He used to fight for every point because every point was a challenge to him even in a desperate situation. He loved to fight till the last second.
"It's no wonder as a coach he is very demanding in that same way. With all the talented players he has with him now, we are sure that he will get better than a world bronze medal."
Blain has opted for consistency for the selection of his World League squad. His retention of the same 18 players who hoisted France to third place at the 2002 World Championships in Argentina means there is only room for four new players. Vincent Duhagon (Poitiers), Guillaume Samica (Padoue, Italie) and Andy Ces and Loic Lemarrec (both from Tourcoing).
France's most experienced player with 310 caps, Luc Marque, the "veteran" at 34, reneged on his decision to retire from international volleyball in a bid to return to the joyous scene of Buenos Aires with the captain Dominique Daquin, who has recovered from an injured back.
For Stéphane Antiga, Frantz Granvorka, Hubert Henno, Olivier Kieffer and Sébastien Frangolacci the sole obsession is to erase the painful memory of having let a place in the final at the Worlds slip in the fifth set against Russia, which they lost 15-9.
The bronze medal, nonetheless, has made them realize their capability and for Blain it's all about trying to harness that potential into a World League-winning performance.