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PARIS - Tears and guilt have mingled with nightmare images of a .357 Magnum being fired repeatedly into a helpless woman as France's former rugby captain Marc Cecillon goes on trial for murder.

The case is rivetting France not just for its gruesome detail, but also because it has exposed the fragility of sporting superstardom. It is the story of a life crippled by booze, inadequacies and jealousy - a local hero whose deep flaws were covered by a coterie of small-town worshippers.

Cecillon, 47, capped 46 times for France, five of them as captain, is on trial for killing his wife in 2004.

Stinking drunk, he was kicked out of a party late at night, only to come back with a loaded handgun.

After chatting to other guests, he turned the weapon on his wife, Chantal, 44. Five rounds slammed into her face and throat as scores of partygoers looked on in horror.

Cecillon admits shooting his wife but denies murder.

Today, Cecillon's massive 1.92m, 110kg frame, which in his glory days dominated the rugby field as France's No. 8, contrasts starkly with the shrivelled character within.

Taking the witness stand yesterday, his voice broken and tears running down his face as he stared at the floor, he appealed to his two daughters and his relatives to forgive him.

"I always loved my wife and I still love her," he said.

He said he acted out of crazed jealousy, driven by alcoholism and "an enclosed life, like living in a nutshell".

"I exploded without knowing why," he said. "I never thought I would do anything like this."

Cecillon's daughters and mother were brought before the handcuffed defendant.

"My husband died of a broken heart a few months after the drama," said his mother, Solange Cecillon. "He died unable to understand why Marc couldn't tell us that things were going wrong. We didn't know that he wasn't eating properly, that he was smoking and drinking. We learnt about it after the event."

"I will never forgive you, but I still love you," said his daughter Angelique, 26, between tears. Her sister, Celine, 24, delivered a cold stare: "Why did you do it? I will never forgive you. I have lost my mother."

Cecillon was born and raised in rugby. He started playing at the age of 8, encouraged by his rugby-playing father and the feats of his grandfather before him. A failure at school, he left the education system at the age of 14 to work as an apprentice for a cakemaker, a rugby fanatic who let him take time off to train.

He joined his local club, Bourgoin-Jallieu, and stayed with them for 23 years, rejecting offers to play in Australia and New Zealand and helping to steer the team from obscurity to the European club title in the 1997-8 season.

In the first half of the 1990s, his rugged face - Cecillon was dubbed "le cowboy" for his square-jawed looks - was a mainstay of the French national lineup.

During his glory years, the court heard, he was a huge carouser, drinking all night with his teammates and flirting with girls. One woman testified that she had a baby by him in 1989, when she was just 17 and he was 32.

But the endless boozing and the infidelities were faithfully ignored, downplayed or covered up by club officials, his army of supporters and loyal members of the press.

The big crash came in 1999 when Cecillon had to hang up his boots. He had never known or wanted any life other than that at the local rugby club.

At a time when his famous teammates, Serge Blanco and Jo Maso, had made a successful switch to post-playing careers, Cecillon flopped as a salesman of artificial pitches and was disastrous as Bourgoin-Jallieu's "ambassador", in essence the club's official greeter. He was too taciturn and withdrawn to be a coach or manager.

Embittered by what he considered a betrayal by the club, fuelled by alcohol, stricken by his departure from the pitch, he went into a slide, getting involved in fights in clubs and feuding repeatedly with his wife, accusing her of having affairs.

"He was one of the victims of the transition from amateur rugby to professional rugby," Marc Lapasset, president of the French Rugby Federation, told the court. "Today, there are means for helping sportsmen start a new career. In those days, these tools didn't exist."

"We all closed our eyes a bit about the rumours about him, because, after all, it was Marc Cecillon and we thought he wouldn't take things too far," said Pierre Berthier, a former long-time president of the club.

"Because of his fame, we were not alert enough and not severe enough in dealing with behaviour that pointed to a slide.

"We should have seen that he needed help."

A verdict is expected on Saturday.

CAPTAIN'S LOG

INTERNATIONAL DEBUT: 1988, February 20 v Ireland.
FINAL APPEARANCE: 1995, June 17 v South Africa
TOTAL CAPS: 46.
CAPTAIN: 5 times.
ALL BLACKS: Played in two tests in New Zealand in 1989.