French keep faith with Gallic game plan

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: Defeat by England has not bowed the Tricolores. Ian Borthwick reports from Paris
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The comprehensive defeat of the French at Twickenham - their heaviest there since 1914 - has inevitably left its mark on the psyche of the Tricolores as they prepare for Saturday's match against Scotland and, in the longer term, the World Cup in South Africa later this year.

There is, nevertheless, a strong feeling in the French camp that this is no time to change tack, that the essence of their ambitious game plan must remain the same, and that despite the humiliation of the 31-10 defeat against England two weeks ago it is more important than ever to remain faithful to the same platform which brought success both in South Africa and in New Zealand.

"Basically, I believe that we could still beat this England team," Pierre Berbizier, the coach, said. "When you look carefully at our performance you can see that not only did the players not respect the original game plan, but they also tried to take on the English on their own strong points."

Berbizier estimates that his team is currently working at only 70 per cent of its potential against 90 per cent for England. "The difference between us explains the 20-point margin at the end of the game. But the World Cup will be a different kettle of fish."

As the French assembled yesterday morning in Paris they were in an introspective mood, partly because the loss to England has been a blow to the pride, but also because of an incident involving Laurent Cabannes, and to a lesser extent his Racing Club team-mate, Laurent Benezech, which has left them with doubts about their freedom of expression. It is even possible that Cabannes could be dropped for disciplinary reasons.

The ebullient flanker's outspoken comments in the Journal du Dimanche last Sunday, airing what is already a widespread unease in French rugby about the failure of the ruling body, the FFR, to adapt and to ensure the best preparation for the players for the World Cup, had angered the FFR president, Bernard Lapasset. Cabannes was summoned to appear before Lapasset at 8.30 yesterday morning, and although no subsequent official comment has been made there is a speculation that although Cabannes will still play against Scotland after a severe reprimand, the executive council, which meets tomorrow, will consider banning him from the World Cup squad.

In any case, it was not exactly what Berbizier meant last week when he called for a reaction of rebellion and revolt after the loss to England. The end result is that, as they showed in training, a convincing performance is required at the Parc des Princes if they are to retain their reputation as contenders for the World Cup.

Philippe Sella, who on Tuesday night celebrated his 33rd birthday, also regards the aftermath of the England game as a sobering experience. "Compared to our other performances over the past year it was definitely a step backwards," the 104-Test veteran said. "However, we're still aware that we had produced a series of matches where we were able to put our own game plan into place, the sort of game which has become our trademark, where were able to retain possession long enough, reduce our mistakes, and get some real continuity into our play. That is exactly what we failed to do against England."

Berbizier, using the cold light of the video, has gone to considerable lengths to show that despite the quality of England's performance France essentially beat themselves. "This is one of the best England teams of the past 20 years, but we gave them the stick with which to beat us, and they beat us well," he said.

Yesterday, after training at Clairefontaine, to prove his point he even invited journalists to a private video session in the salon of the Chateau Ricard.

The results were convincing, showing notably that if the English players lost the ball three times in the whole match, the French spilled it, relinquished it, or otherwise lost it considerably more often. "Exactly 26 times we lost the ball in that game," he exclaimed, pointing to the TV screen. "At this level of competition you cannot expect to win if you are not able to set up second- and third-phase play.

"We were not beaten by the English strengths but by our own weaknesses. Their style of play holds no surprises for us - it was exactly what we expected, and even if they didn't raise it to a level of perfection, the power of the English was only able to express itself through our own weakness."