Rugby Union: French danger signals have Woodward on his guard

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Sporting sages are forever reminding us that a team are only as good as their last game, but England's barnstorming assault on the All Blacks at Twickenham in December continues to deflect attention from one uncomfortable fact: they have now gone six Tests without a win.

Chris Hewett says victory in Paris this afternoon would be worth its weight in gold.

Brian Moore's pitbullish assertion that playing the French at rugby was like "facing 15 Eric Cantonas" was meant - and taken - as an insult, but England would far rather lock horns with a Parisian street gang of kung-fu-kicking pseudo-poets than with the unknown quantities selected to launch the Gallic game into the 21st century at the Stade de France today.

Any red-blooded Englishman worth his salt knew precisely how to provoke the Cantona combustibles into self-destruct mode, but what about Raphael Ibanez, Thomas Lievremont and Christophe Dominici? Can these newcomers be persuaded to blow a collective gasket?

The one thing that really worries Clive Woodward, Lawrence Dallaglio and the rest of the English hierarchy is the thought that this unfamiliar French side, led as it is by a rookie captain and stacked with ball-playing loose forwards rather than hit-men the size of Matterhorns, will prove disciplined as well as rapid, calm as well as imaginative.

"Something tells me that the French are at their most dangerous right now," said Woodward yesterday.

England's coach believes that the 50-point shellacking inflicted on Les Tricolores by the Springboks in November was, if not quite a blessing in disguise, a salutary experience in the sense that it gave Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux, his opposite numbers, the chance to create a fresh side in their own expansive image.

"Villepreux, in particular, is a rugby purist with very definite ideas on how this game of ours should be played," Woodward said. "This is his opportunity to put those ideas into place."

Hence the abrupt departures of Philippe Saint-Andre, Thierry Lacroix, Olivier Merle and Laurent Cabannes from the equation. The new broom has swept aside Laurent Leflamand, David Venditti and Abdel Benazzi, too. Not even Marc Dal Maso, perhaps the best hooker in the world last season, can find a place in today's starting line-up. The selectors wanted Ibanez as captain because he fitted snugly into their new-age philosophy and despite the howls of disbelief from all corners of the French rugby hinterland, they got their man.

"This is a fresh side, an unfamiliar side and that makes them a problem," Woodward said. "It's the side I would have picked had I been in their shoes. But we're happy with the side we've picked and if an English rugby player can't relish a game in front of an 80,000 crowd wherever it might be, he shouldn't be looking to perform at international level.

"This game will be a pure adrenalin buzz for those involved. I know. I've played games in Paris and I can recall what the atmosphere was like. I envy these players because I wish I could still do what they're doing."

For the record, Woodward played at the old Parc des Princes on three occasions as an England centre, winning twice. "Sadly, it's the real thrashing we took in 1984 that I remember best of all," he said. "I don't want these guys to go through anything like that."

But it is Woodward himself who could most do without an explosion of French joie de vivre today. The coach is still comfortably in credit following the difficult but generally encouraging series of matches against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia before Christmas, but he knows better than anyone that he is now moving into more perilous waters. For the first time, the rugby public back home expects nothing less than a victory and as a result the heat is very much on.

"I know England have gone six Tests without a win but I'm not thinking along those lines," he insisted as he ran a tutored eye over the vast bowl of the new stadium yesterday.

"I take my starting point from the last fixture - I've never been any different - and therefore, I'm looking at guys who drew 26-apiece with a great New Zealand team. The videos tell us that we didn't actually play as well as we thought that day, but it was still a big plus, a step along the road to where we want to go. This game is about taking another step."

As an ex-centre who prefers to leave the whys and wherefores of the scrum, ruck and maul to his specialist advisers, Woodward none the less appreciates that today's outcome rests squarely on the shoulders of his front row.

It is not a vintage trio by any manner of means: Jason Leonard is struggling to rediscover his old authority on the loose head, Mark Regan's rumbustious form around the paddock has been undermined by his inability to hit a barn door with a double bass and Darren Garforth remains an honest journeyman rather than a state-of-the-art Test tight head. Opposing them are Christian Califano and Frank Tournaire, two props of undisputed world class.

"It will be a hard old afternoon, that's for sure," said Regan yesterday as he paddled his way around a Versailles hotel swimming pool in an effort to soothe the effects of a week of shuddering work-outs at the business end of the scrummaging machine. "We can take 'em, though. I've got some good boys around me."

Mmmm. The danger for England is that Califano and Tournaire will match the murderous physical battering dished out by Os de Randt and Adrian Garvey during the Springboks' record win at Twickenham in the autumn. If Regan and company fail to hold the twin terrors of Toulouse, England will go into their next match against Wales with the catchphrase "win or bust" ringing in their ears.

FRANCE v ENGLAND

at Stade de France

J-L Sadourney Colomiers 15 M Catt Bath

P Bernat-Salles Pau 14 D Rees Sale

C Lamaison Brive 13 J Guscott Bath

S Glas Bourgoin 12 W Greenwood Leicester

C Dominici Castres 11 A Healey Leicester

T Castaignede Castres 10 P Grayson Northampton

P Carbonneau Brive 9 K Bracken Saracens

C Califano Toulouse 1 J Leonard Harlequins

R Ibanez Dax, capt 2 M Regan Bath

F Tournaire Toulouse 3 D Garforth Leicester

F Pelous Toulouse 4 M Johnson Leicester

O Brouzet Begles 5 G Archer Newcastle

P Benetton Agen 6 L Dallaglio Wasps, capt

O Magne Brive 7 N Back Leicester

T Lievremont Perpignan 8 R Hill Saracens

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland) Kick-off: 2.0 (Sky Sports 2)

Replacements: 16 X Garbajosa (Toulouse); 17 D Aucagne (Pau); 18 F Galthie (Colomiers); 19 M Lievremont (Stade Francais); 20 T Cleda (Pau); 21 C Soulettes (Beziers); 22 M Dal Maso (Agen).

Replacements: 16 M Perry (Bath); 17 P de Glanville (Bath); 18 A Diprose (Saracens); 19 D Grewcock ( Saracens); 20 G Rowntree (Leicester); 21 P Vickery (Gloucester); 22 D West (Leicester).

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