England hoodoo haunts France : RUGBY UNION

five nations' Championship: Truculent Tricolores must keep cool to over come their betes noires at Twickenham
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In rugby the entente between England and France has of late become so lacking in cordiality, the preliminaries so full of venom that it always comes as a relief when the combatants - sorry, players - get on with the game.

"Playing France is like facing 15 Eric Cantonas; they are brilliant but brutal," Brian Moore said yesterday by way of his customary calmative. The England hooker can be routinely relied on to infuriate the French. Last year Pierre Berbizier, France's coach, accused him of orchestrating on-field provocation.

So when the two best teams in Europe go through their 80 minutes-worth at Twickenham this afternoon, and in all probability decide who will go into the World Cup as Five Nations champions, it will be the blinking of an eye compared with the interminable hours that have been consumed by verbal foreplay.

It has become the nature of the fixture, the more so the longer France have gone without beating England. If they were to do so today, at the eighth attempt since squeezing home by a point in 1988, it would complete a full set along with South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom they have beaten in the past 18 months.

These five are generally reckoned to be the only realistic contenders to win the Webb Ellis Trophy in South Africa in June, and the English - who look as good as any at the moment - were suitably impressed by France's accomplishment in twice beating the All Blacks last summer.

"They have a huge momentum from winning their series in New Zealand and have precipitated to being one of the favourites for the World Cup," Jack Rowell, the England manager, said. "They have looked at other teams in the world and are now developing a game that's up to the Australian standard. They will give us a searching examination, like Australia at their best."

As the Wallabies are both World Cup holders and favourites to be so again this year, this is high praise. But the England-France match cannot be so easily categorised, because it is such an individual - and in the French case idiosyncratic - expression of an ancient enmity.

For France it is to do with mood, mind over matter, as much as anything and in the recent years of their failure against England they have tended to go into this game in a filthy mood. With cool judgement thus suspended, French flair has been overcome, and sometimes overwhelmed, by English phlegm.

Nor, not withstanding what took place in Christchurch and Auckland, is there any good reason to suppose this season will be any different from the five that have preceded it. On the contrary, it is as if the French have a death wish as, one after another, they have lined up to condemn England.

Strange, is it not, that the first thing Bernard Lapasset, president of the French rugby federation, advised after the Olivier Merle butting affair was that Merle should keep his mouth shut and not fall into the trap supposedly set by the perfidious English? The very first person to ignore this advice was the Monsieur le President himself.

Merle duly followed with talk of the Hundred Years' War and when he was then dropped as a disciplinary measure in favour of Olivier Brouzet, Brouzet too became involved. Yet the conspiracy of which they all complain, between the English team and the English press, in fact exists only in French heads.

If it was actually used as a stimulus, well and good. But Berbizier himself admits he has had problems motivating his players against England. "We have always been impatient," he said. "England have been more intelligent than us; they had a strategy, then stuck to it, and as they won that made it a good strategy."

Berbizier has not been above a psychological skirmish or two of his own, though. The coach is aware of England's stated aim of expanding their rugby and is mischievously daring them to turn theory into practice, on the grounds that this will be the only way to win the World Cup.

The reality is that, for all the big talk, France would be perfectly happy to win anyhow, simply to go to South Africa with the mental block about the English freed. In this respect, Twickenham may be less of a problem than the more febrile Parc des Princes would be.

"If we are able to win in Christchurch, Auckland and Johannesburg we should be able to do it as well at Twickenham," he said. "Anyway, my goal is to persuade the players that a ground is a ground and even if we were in a cowfield without any crowd we should be able to play a game of rugby."

The Twickenham pitch, as it happens, is in pristine condition, as far removed from a cowfield - or a cabbage patch, which it once was - as could be imagined. Perfect, then, for France to establish themselves, as Berbizier puts it, as the reference point for the "beau jeu".

But perfect, too, for England finally to launch their own version of the beautiful game, an opportunity that was denied them by the vicious elements in Dublin a fortnight ago. With Jeremy Guscott having taken his medicine - "a one-sided assault from the rest of the team", as Rowell put it - for failing to give try-scoring passes when required, the prospect is unimaginably attractive.

Even so, the feeling persists that, when it comes down to it, it will be more down-to-earth attributes that swing it for England. Against the French - though not, oddly, against everyone else - they invariably have the gift of clear sight and cool heads.

The answer, then, is simply to wait for the mist to descend. Or as Rob Andrew, England's French-speaking stand-off, put it: "They have really wound themselves up to such a fever it's almost as if they feel there's an inevitability about it." Nothing is inevitable but English victories over France have become the nearest thing.

Five Nations focus, pages 44 and 45