French drop Merle as Berbizier attacks Cooke : RUGBY UNION

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The Independent Online
Olivier Merle will have to do his penance after all. Exonerated by the French federation on Tuesday for the events that led to the Wales prop Ricky Evans breaking his leg, the gargantuan lock was yesterday ejected from the team to play England at Twickenham on Saturday week.

At the same time, the French used the occasion to excoriate the English attitude to discipline. Pierre Berbizier, the coach, condemned the choice of Ben Clarke after his yellow card in Dublin and threatened to sue the former England manager Geoff Cooke for calling Merle a "hitman" in Rugby Special last Sunday. In point of fact, it was another contributor to the programme who uttered the offending word.

So while the England selectors, serene after victory in Ireland, were naming an unchanged team for this climactic occasion, France's were replacing Merle with the 6ft 8in Olivier Brouzet, his second-row partner for Grenoble until Merle joined Montferrandthis season. It will be Brouzet's third cap.

Even though sound tactical reasons can be adduced, the French selectors made it clear that Merle's exclusion was a punishment for the head-butt - euphemistically described by the federation as "engaging head-first" - which knocked out Evans in France's win at Parc des Princes last Saturday. The Welshman broke his left leg in two places as he fell and will not play again this season.

Merle's treatment is more than enough to fuel French paranoia about the great Anglo-Saxon conspiracy, particularly as the selectors appear to have been got at during the preceding 24 hours. On Tuesday, Bernard Lapasset, the French federation president, while graciously accepting that selection was for the selectors, told Merle that French rugby was behind him.

On the other hand, Merle's change of clubs has meant that, international matches excepted, under federation regulations he has been playing only second-team rugby this season, whereas Brouzet's form has been exceptional, culminating in his performance inthe A game in Scotland last Friday.

Brouzet will certainly supply more line-out ball, but then England, according to Cooke, have always regarded Merle as "a bit of a joke". In the circumstances, the sacrifice of the big man's 20st for the less big man's 181/2 is probably not a sacrifice atall - not least because it will spare the "Blacksmith's Brute", as someone called him, participation in the pre-match war of words.

Berbizier, on the other hand, had no compunction. The remarks were "scandalous and slander the whole of French rugby," he said. "When a player is referred to as a `hitman', I consider myself to be personally involved - because it means that I accept having such a man in my team."

Merle had been dropped "in order to be coherent with ourselves," Berbizier said. "What could I have said to the others if I had kept Olivier? Roumat and Benazzi have been sanctioned in the past and there is no reason the same disciplinary measures shouldnot apply to him."

At times like these, it is agreeable to be an England selector. The team to play France took only as long as Jack Rowell and company needed to pick a second string for the A game against France at Leicester. Even that contains only one change, Paul Hull - displaced by Mike Catt - for Andy Tunningley. "It wasn't really a meeting," Rowell said.

Martin Johnson's participation opposite Brouzet will remain uncertain until he sees how he responds to treatment. "There were no positions that needed scrutiny, although Martin is doubtful," Rowell said. Simon Shaw is again on stand-by to replace Johnson- which would give England a freakish second row made up of one of 6ft 9in and another, Martin Bayfield, of 6ft 10in.

Scotland will begin their championship against Ireland at Murrayfield with the team who broke a sequence of nine defeats by beating Canada last Saturday. The anticipated recall of Scott Hastings has not materialised, the selectors preferring to carry on their experiment with Gregor Townsend, normally a stand-off, at outside centre.

Alan Sharp is fit enough after a back injury to return for Bristol on Saturday, but Dave Hilton's debut keeps him his loose-head place. After conclusively losing to England, the Irish are leaving their team announcement until their squad get-together on Saturday.