Rugby Union: Five Nations - Blighty's mighty blowers save France's big day

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The Independent Online
Never in doubt, as they say in all the best rugby circles. The truth, of course, is that today's Five Nations collision between France and England in front of a record 80,000 crowd was very much in doubt, thanks to the peculiar and cringingly embarrassing problems surrounding the frost-bound playing surface at the new Stade de France in the north of Paris.

Only the best efforts of a rustic band of sporting horticulturalists from dear old Blighty managed to save the showpiece fixture. David Powell, best known as a bruising England prop of the late 1960s, and Nigel Felton, a former opening batsman with Somerset and Northamptonshire, thawed the previously uncovered pitch by wrapping it in a protective blanket and slow-roasting it with dozens of heaters, burners and hot-air blowers for three anxious days. "We've used up 500 gallons of diesel, but it's worked," Powell said.

Whether the ingenuity of Les Rosbifs will work to England's advantage remains to be seen, but Clive Woodward, the England coach, and his party gave the surface their seal of approval on arrival at the stadium yesterday. "It's perfect," he said. "I have no problem whatsoever with either the pitch or the facilities."

There may be problems ahead for the French, though, The emergency heat treatment carried out on the playing area has left the grass in poor shape - a curious brown colour, sparse in places and almost seared in others.

Stadium officials must now decide whether to relay the pitch ahead of this summer's football World Cup. The further damage caused this afternoon by approximately 270 stones of French and English forward beef should help them make up their minds.

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