French feel chill on unfamiliar ground

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The Independent Online
RUGBY UNION The capital of the Franche-Comte is renowned for its clock- making, its citadel, and as the birthplace of Victor Hugo. But emphatically not for its rugby and it is evident that the French team would be happier playing Canada almost anywhere bar Bescancon.

Today's match at the city's Stade Leo Lagrange might have seemed like a good, missionary idea when it was arranged. But French players like the sun on their backs and, though there was plenty of that here yesterday, the temperature remained sub-zero all day. Besancon is hard by Switzerland, and is also renowned as one of the coldest places in France.

All of which means that the French captain, Philippe Saint-Andre, dare not hope for anything as conclusive as England's 60-19 thrashing of the Canadians at Twickenham last Saturday. As he wearily noted: "The English had 20 minutes of dream rugby in the second half in a stadium that was packed out. . . whereas we are at Besancon."

If this sounds like a neat and not particularly diplomatic put-down, it should be appreciated that in their more paranoid moments the French even suspect a conspiracy, though for once it has nothing to do with the perfidious Anglo-Saxons.

No, it is the French rugby federation (FFR) itself which has supposedly done all it can to help Canada: a narrow pitch which might deliberately be designed to stifle the French flair, a perishing climate and, to top it off, the kick-off put back from 3.00 to sundown at 4.15 so that it will be colder still.

Nor will there be any post-match escape, because the French squad of 30 - including the recalled film star-cum-centre Denis Charvet after an absence of nearly four years - who have been here since Wednesday will carry on training in Besancon until Tuesday.

It is a rum business. The president of the FFR's Franche-Comte region, Robert Natalie, happened also to be the FFR's head of communications as well as a right-hand man of the president, Bernard Lapasset, and the ever acerbic French rugby press, headed byL'Equipe, has drawn its own conclusion.

Besancon does have a rugby club but it is in the third division of the French championship. This make the need for missionary work palpable, yet in contrast to Test matches that have taken place in non-rugby cities as far flung as Nantes in the west and Lille in the north, in the east there are not even any complimentary tickets for schoolchildren.

The pity is that those kids unwilling or unable to pay Fr30 (£3.75) will miss the chance to see France at a moment of unwonted confidence and expectancy after the double defeat of the All Blacks in New Zealand last time out six months ago. Thirteen remain of the side who won the second Test in Auckland and it would have been all 15 but for injuries to the outside-half Christope Deyaud and the flanker Laurent Cabannes.

As, in addition, Canada have lost all five of their tour matches, their auguries are dishearteningly unpropitious - even though it was as recently as June that they achieved one of the all-time great Canadian results by beating France, then en route to New Zealand, 18-16 in Ottawa.

"We are looking back more to that game rather than last week," Raymond Skett, the manager, said. "If we've done it once, we can do it twice." If this appears to be optimism running as wild as a moose in Manitoba, it is at least fair to point out that Canada are vastly better than indicated by the Twickenham score.

"The English have once again given us a lesson in efficiency and realism but there was no surprise in that because it is exactly what we have been suffering from them for the last five years," France's coach, Pierre Berbizier, said.

With Ian Stuart, injured against England, having gone home, Gareth Rees has been elevated to the Canadian captaincy with Karl Svoboda being given a game at hooker, and Winston Stanley on the right wing, and Steve Gray filling Stuart's place at centre.

"The Canadian team has nothing left to lose," Berbizier added, trying to be kind. "They are at the end of their tour and when we met them in Canada we were at the beginning of ours. After New Zealand, our own experience is that the end of tours are more successful than the beginning."

FRANCE: J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); E N'Tamack (Toulouse), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Saint-Andre (Montferrand, capt); Y Delaigue (Toulon), G Accoceberry (Begles); L Benezech (Racing Club), J-M Gonzales (Bayonne), C Califano (Toulouse), O Merle (Grenoble), O Roumat (Dax), A Benazzi, P Benetton (Agen), A Costes (Montferrand).

CANADA: S Stewart; W Stanley (University of British Columbia OB), C Stewart (Western Province), S Gray (Kats), D Lougheed (Toronto Welsh); G Rees (Newport, capt), J Graf (UBC OB); E Evans (IBM Tokyo), K Svoboda (Ajax Wanderers), D Jackart (UBC OB), M James (Burnaby Lake), N Hadley (Wasps), I Gordon (James Bay), C McKenzie (UBC OB), G MacKinnon (Ex-Britannia Lions).

Referee: B Leask (Australia).