All Blacks wary of French dissension

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The Independent Online

reports from Toulouse

French rugby is so glorious in its perversity that it is reasonable to expect that this week's schism between the players and their federation is likely to make them more, not less, likely to beat New Zealand here at the Parc Toulousain today.

True, the players' minds have been elsewhere while they have been battling with Bernard Lapasset, their unpopular president, on issues great and small, right down to how many tickets they are allocated (a serious financial opportunity, this) for this afternoon's match.

And yesterday they were trying in vain to change Andre Herrero's mind about resigning as team manager, an irrevocable decision that means the team for the second Test in Paris next Saturday cannot be chosen as planned tonight, since Herrero will by then be unavailable.

This heroic rugby figure of the Sixties has taken all he can of the "egotism" (his word) of his players and the apparent indifference of the French federation, in particular Lapasset, to their concerns. Yesterday the president, who already felt bad enough because of flu, was loftily declining to become embroiled.

The All Blacks' problems - mundane ones to do with injuries and selection - appear insignificant by comparison but their own captain properly warned them not to make any assumptions based on the recent turbulence. Being perverse, the French genuinely believe they have been strengthened by the stand-off that culminated in their boycott of Thursday night's civic function in the Capitole, Toulouse's majestic city hall.

But the fact remains that, because Lapasset unilaterally barred three leading players from selection after they had returned from South Africa a month ago, France are by official design not fielding their strongest side. The president's diktat makes Laurent Cabannes, Olivier Roumat and Thierry Lacroix ineligible until the second Test.

Looked at like this, small wonder Jean-Claude Skrela, the coaching successor to the sacked Pierre Berbizier, should have remarked: "I am not waiting for a miracle." And the evidence of Thursday's disjointed public training session - yesterday's took place in private - entirely supported that view.

The depths of the division within French rugby are demonstrated by Berbizier's activities during the All Blacks' stay. Effectively persona non grata with the federation, he has popped up at various stops along the way, almost as if he were lending his support to the tourists as a protest of his own.

In view of all this, the obvious judgement is that it will be next to impossible for France to flourish today as they won both Tests in New Zealand last year. Which is precisely the perverse point, since at troubled times like these they are at their least predictable. "If anything, it will bring the French team a lot closer together," Sean Fitzpatrick, the All Black captain, said yesterday.

He presides over a team considerably altered from June's beaten World Cup finalists. Graeme Bachop is playing in Japan, Mike Brewer has retired, and three of the four bright young things who lit up the tournament in South Africa have also fallen by the wayside.

Andrew Mehrtens is already back in Christchurch nursing a knee injury, Josh Kronfeld is limping from one French city to another with an ankle injury and, most astonishing of all, Glen Osborne has lost so much confidence that he has been relegated to the replacements.

No problem there, not when you can move the former boy wonder, Jeff Wilson, from wing to his preferred position at full-back. Nor is the dynamic Kronfeld quite the loss that might be imagined when a player of the supreme calibre of Michael Jones is available to fill the gap. Jones was excluded from the World Cup squad because of his repudiation of Sunday rugby. Oh, and a certain Jonah Lomu is still there to spread panic and confusion.

Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, is giving himself another 10 months' rugby encompassing another 11 Tests including next Saturday's - which will be the last for Laurie Mains, the retiring New Zealand coach. Already there are six hats in the ring to succeed Mains, whose departure will initiate a period of domestic strife that will make New Zealand seem just like France.

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E N'Tamack (Toulouse), R Dourthe (Dax), T Castaignede (Toulouse), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand, capt); A Penaud (Brive), P Carbonneau (Toulouse); L Benezech (Racing Club), M de Rougemont (Toulon), C Califano (Toulouse), O Merle (Montferrand), F Pelous (Dax), P Benetton, A Benazzi (Agen), A Carminati (Brive).

NEW ZEALAND: J Wilson (Otago); E Rush, F Bunce, W Little (North Harbour), J Lomu (Counties); S Culhane (Southland), S Forster (Otago); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown, R Brooke (Auckland), I Jones, B Larsen (North Harbour), Z Brooke, M Jones (Auckland).

Referee: P Marshall (Australia).