France to be feared

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FROM what I have seen so far this season, I am making two predictions: France for the Five Nations' Championship, and South Africa for the World Cup. This puts me out of kilter with most of my colleagues, not for the first time, but no matter.

My principle reason for elevating these countries more loftily than some others have done is the same for both of them - enormous natural talent among the backs, and packs who still have a lot to learn.

Forwards can be made, manufactured: not, admittedly, as if they were on a conveyor belt, but more as if they were objects in a craftsman's workshop, waiting to be knocked into shape by such trusty artisans as Roger Uttley and Dick Best. Indeed, the very success of England during the past seasons goes someway to demonstrating this truth.

Backs, by contrast, cannot be moulded in such a way. You can be taught how to kick and how to pass (though most first-class players now need to take extra tuition in the latter skill). But you cannot be taught the precise circumstances in which to adopt the one course or the other.

Yet the analyses are not identical for both countries. The South African backs are getting on a bit, and there is no guarantee that the successors to Danie Gerber and Naas Botha will be up to their predecessors' standards. However, it may well be that, as Steve Bale suggested yesterday, Botha is not making the best use of the threequarter talent behind or alongside him.

If I were judging threequarter strength, I should place Australia and South Africa joint first, with an in-form, sun-on-their- backs France third. But there is no guarantee that the South African centres of the future will be up to the high standard of the present duo.

What we can predict with fair confidence is that South African forward play is bound to improve, even though they may require a remodelled front row (with Harry Roberts as hooker), a genuine line-out jumper, and a faster back row.

France seem well on the way to solving their forward problems. Though their front row are still too free with their fists, and may give away crucial penalties on that account, they no longer convey the impression of being contenders for the European heavyweight championship. With Olivier Roumat and Abdel Benazzi, they have what could be a stable second row.

Nevertheless, I still wonder whether Jean-Michel Cadieu was not too hastily jettisoned, and whether France would not be better off with Marc Cecillon at No 6 and Benazzi at No 8, the position in which he was originally capped. Laurent Cabannes at No 7 is currently the leading European player in that position, and had an outstanding game on Saturday - as also did Benazzi and Cecillon.

Though Pierre Berbizier was a scrum-half, he appears to be doing better - to have a clearer idea of what he wants - with his forwards than with his backs. Or perhaps this should not be a matter for suprise at all. Ancient fueds, territorial rivalries may be involved. For instance, Berbizier (from Agen) has made clear that there is unlikely to be a place in his side for Didier Camberabero (from Beziers).

Camberabero is interesting because he said recently that having a hair-transplant, apparently successful in his case, had given him increased self-confidence and had indeed changed his life. Whether it has given him greater confidence in his goalkicking, too, I do not know. He has always been a world-class kicker, though not perhaps a world- class outside-half.

When Rob Andrew was asked on television last Saturday why Berbizier and Camberabero were at odds, he replied that he would have to be a Frenchman to answer that satisfactorily. If Andrew, an intelligent man who has spent a year working in and playing for Toulouse, cannot supply an answer, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Alain Peynaud has certainly justified his place as Camberabero's successor owing to his try-scoring abilities close to the line, which are of Gareth Edwards- like dimensions. But, tough- looking character though he may be, Thierry Lacroix does not really justify his place as a centre as distinct from a kicker.

The solution is surely to try to accommodate Peynaud and Camberabero in the same back division. Once Berbizier finds the right combination, France will be truly formidable again.