Rugby Union: Twin towers likely to host France's first twin Slam

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S new breed of globally conscious go-getters may consider a Five Nations' Grand Slam to be only slightly less common than the contents of a Soho stripper's lingerie drawer, but the French still treasure it as a glittering prize of inestimable value. Should Raphael Ibanez and his gifted colleagues dazzle their way past a depleted Welsh outfit at Wembley tomorrow - and if they realise only 75 per cent of their potential, they will surely win with something to spare - they can anticipate the freedom of every half-decent restaurant between Paris and Provence.

Only six illustrious Tricolores - Serge Blanco, Roland Bertranne, Pierre Berbizier, Robert Paparemborde, Jean-Francois Imbernon and Jean-Pierre Rives - can claim to have participated in more than one Grand Chelem and for all the fizz, flair and physicality they have brought to the championship over the last 85 years, the French have never before secured back-to-back Slams. It is, then, a momentous occasion for the 13 surviving contributors to last season's full house of victories.

Yet while Ibanez and company are concentrating all their thoughts on landing the immediate catch, one French visionary is keeping at least half an eye on the bigger fish looming on the horizon. Pierre Villepreux desires the Slam as intensely as any of his countrymen, but having reinvented the role of the full-back during an international career spanning the late 1960s and early 70s, he is now applying his formidable rugby brain to the reinvention of the national team in time for next year's World Cup.

"We have two main aims against Wales," said the assistant coach, whose resourceful partnership with Jean-Claude Skrela, a former Test colleague, appears to have persuaded even the notoriously self-destructive sporting politicians of the French Federation that this is a back-room regime worthy of their whole-hearted support. "The first is to see the players take their place in history by winning another Slam. If they manage that, the second aim - a growth in confidence as we approach the World Cup - will automatically be realised.

"We came into this tournament with a young team and a new captain and the good thing from a coach's point of view is that they are so eager to learn. This side has a healthy mentality; it has a long way to go before people can call it anything more than good, but the steps we have taken are all positive."

Villepreux is too nimble in thought and deed to be fooled into a premature claim of potential greatness for his side, but both he and Skrela believe they are on the verge of something special. The three wins to date were achieved without Abdel Benazzi, Olivier Merle, Emile N'tamack, Marc Dal Maso and, for the most part, Philippe Benetton, and any side sufficiently rich in resources to marginalise a quintet of that quality has little to be modest about.

Philippe Bernat-Salles, the greying Pau wing whose legs appear to be approximately two decades younger than the rest of him, has slammed the door shut on N'tamack with a rush of sublime finishing that has yielded him a try a match. Olivier Brouzet and Fabien Pelous have formed a thoroughly modern second-row partnership while the Lievremont brothers, Thomas and Marc, have made such strides in the back row that Benetton has been relegated on to the bench and the great Benazzi forced out altogether.

For the Welsh, this season's finale is a daunting obstacle made all the more formidable by Allan Bateman's withdrawal. The universally respected Lions centre had been excused training on compassionate grounds because his six-year-old daughter, Naomi, was suffering from a serious eye complaint. She was still undergoing treatment at Kingston General Hospital in Surrey yesterday and, as a result, Bateman declared himself unavailable.

"Our thoughts are with Allan; while he will be a great loss to the team, we sympathise with his feelings and totally understand his decision to remain with his daughter," said the Welsh coach, Kevin Bowring, who promptly called up Neil Boobyer, of Llanelli, for his tournament debut. The reshuffle means Wales will field their third different midfield partnership in four Five Nations outings.

Boobyer is nobody's novice, either in attack or defence. But he is not a Bateman - who is at the moment? - and with the Welsh tight forwards still on the skinny side of lightweight, it is difficult to imagine how they can hope to hold Christian Califano and Franck Tournaire at the set- piece and, by extension, Thomas Castaignede at outside-half. Put your money on the twin towers to host the first twin Slam in French history.

Wales will play their first home Euro 2,000 qualifying match with Italy in September will take place at the home of Liverpool FC, which will also host Wales's match against Denmark in June 1999. Ninian Park, Cardiff, will host the game against Belarus this October with the final fixture against Switzerland in October 1999 at Cardiff's new Millennium Stadium.

WALES v FRANCE

at Wembley Stadium

K Morgan Pontypridd 15 J-L Sadourney Colomiers

W Proctor Llanelli 14 P Bernat-Salles Pau

N Boobyer Llanelli 13 C Lamaison Brive

L Davies Cardiff 12 S Glas Bourgoin

G Thomas Cardiff 11 X Garbajosa Toulouse

N Jenkins Pontypool 10 T Castaignede Castres

R Howley Cardiff, capt 9 P Carbonneau Brive

A Lewis Cardiff 1 C Califano Toulouse

G Jenkins Swansea 2 R Ibanez Dax, capt

D Young Cardiff 3 F Tournaire Toulouse

M Voyle Llanelli 4 O Brouzet Begles-Bordeaux

R Moore Swansea 5 F Pelous Toulouse

R Appleyard Swansea 6 M Lievremont Stade Francais

C Charvis Swansea 7 O Magne Brive

S Davies Swansea 8 T Lievremont Perpignan

Referee: P Marshall (Australia) Kick-off: 3.0, tomorrow (BBC1)

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