A little prince rules the Parc

Chris Hewett sees a French debutant finally make it to the ball
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The Independent Online
WHAT a place to make a Five Nations debut. Parc des Princes was even more of a bear pit than usual yesterday, an expectant French crowd so desperate to give England a greeting from hell that they whistled and hissed at the ballboys simply because they emerged in white tracksuits.

Imagine, then, how the newcomers felt. No fewer than six of the England side were tasting championship rugby for the first time and while the French themselves were blooding a handful of tiros of their own, their collective paranoia could hardly have been an as extreme.

The English freshers will be even more neurotic now, losing as they did to Thomas Castaignede's lethal late drop goal. The word on the street beforehand had been as bleak as could be - France would win by 20, perhaps more - but as events unfolded it became clear that one cool head and a single kick would decide it.

That the cool head belonged to le Petit Prince, Castaignede, himself making his tournament bow, merely rubbed salt in English wounds. He had barely touched the ball for close on 79 minutes when he took his pot-shot at glory while the English new boys had spent every last drop of sweat for the cause.

None more so than Lawrence Dallaglio, the most eye-catching forward in the English pack. Indeed, only the magnificent Abdel Benazzi was able to overshadow the young Wasps captain , who has shouldered so much responsibility in north London over the past four months that not even Paris had much chance of disturbing his equilibrium.

In the contest of the golden boys, Dallaglio more than coped with the threat of Laurent Cabannes. Open-side flankers do not come any more panther- like than Cabannes, but Dallaglio lost his man only once - a typically dashing drive upfield that ended in a 62nd-minute penalty for Thierry Lacroix. Within three minutes Dallaglio had made such a dent in the French defences that Paul Grayson was able to drop an equalising goal in his sleep.

Dallaglio will still be cursing himself for missing his first big tackle - Christian Califano, the Toulouse prop, slipped into overdrive and beat the wing forward with embarrassing ease. But Califano was to inflict far more damage on England's front row, where Mark Regan and Graham Rowntree were forced to take a crash course in the harsh realities of international rugby as the French moved up several gears after the break.

Neither could have given an ounce more in the loose but the English scrum creaked so badly in the 20 minutes after half-time that Benazzi and company had the run of the Parc at a time when territorial advantage was priceless.

Understandably, England captain Will Carling was fiercely protective of his newcomers. "That must be the most difficult place in the world to make a debut," he said. "The players who have come into the side will have learned an enormous amount. It will stand them in good stead for the next three matches."

That assumes that all of them will survive. Jack Rowell, under more pressure than ever, may decide otherwise.