French ready to wear pragmatism : RUGBY UNION

RUGBY UNION: Canada show more variety in defeat to side mixing flair wi th fortitude while women's world champions show strength
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The Independent Online
France 28

Canada 9

However facile it may be to say so, already England v France at Twickenham on 4 February is shaping as the decisive match of this season's Five Nations. Begging Canada's pardon, only then will we know what either is really made of.

The urge, with the World Cup in mind, to draw a direct comparison between French and English fortunes against the Canadians is almost irresistible. Almost, but not quite.

You could draw a straight statistical line between 60-19 and 28-9 but the reality is that there is nothing much in it - as long as Pierre Berbizier does not wholly subordinate Le Frenchflair to the "realism" France's coach admires so much in the rugby ofthe Rosbifs.

As a quality realism may be admirable but it is not lovable. It is also central to the age-old debate about French rugby. Those of us who usually watch from afar want our romantic view vindicated. Those at the sharp end - Berbizier especially - want to win.

Still, it is pleasant to dream that the real France is represented by the try - the one "from the end of the world" - which beat New Zealand in the final minute in Auckland last June, and in any event it was asking too much that the Tricolours produce a performance as ruthless as England's against Canada at Twickenham.

For one thing, they did not have the benefit of a warm-up against Romania. And they had also been landed here, where they patently did not wish to be and still do not as their sub-zero training week drags on until tomorrow.

In fact it may not have been such a bad idea, because it showed that the very pragmatism that Berbizier demands does after all exist. Indeed it was essential in overcoming his players' reluctance to become missionaries to Franche-Comte.

The little discomforts tend to have exaggerated importance in the minds of Frenchmen but, as it happened, they were well-supported here and there was a palpable sense of pleasure among the 15,000 Franc-Comtois who filled the Stade Leo Lagrange that they should have had the honour.

Quite apart from which, as Bernard Lapasset, the French rugby federation president, indignantly pointed out, in the distant past when the Canadians' visit was arranged, nowhere else - and certainly nowhere in the traditional rugby areas a long, long way

away from Besancon - had been remotely interested.

It had not been until France lost to Canada in Ottawa en route to New Zealand in the summer that people all of a sudden became upset about having to go very nearly to Switzerland. So Lapasset felt more than justified. But then so did Berbizier that his team had had their revenge.

So, too, did Philippe Sella. If ever there has been a chivalrous figure in French rugby - in France itself, since he has just received the National Order of Merit - it is the nonpareil centre. But his escutcheon was blotted when he was sent off in Ottawafor a minor act of retaliation against a Canadian who had two fingers, fork-like, in his eyes. The scandal was in the dismissal and not in Sella's conduct.

He felt it so profoundly that, that night, he forgot for the first time to telephone home after an international and as it was his 99th, that is a lot of phone calls. On Saturday, against the same opponents and now in his 102nd international, he would h a ve more than made amends if amends had needed to have been made.

Sella, at very nearly 33, was an inspiration and the try with which he completed the scoring in injury time was both a triumphant reward and a form of rehabilitation. It made the try count 3-0. England's had been 6-3, and that - with February on their minds - is a sort of symmetry.

Indeed the matches, though they ended with such different scores, bore many similarities. Once again the rugged Canadian forwards struggled in the line-out but competed as fiercely as ever in the loose play, where they sent back a steady supply of possession.

It was used in a varied way which again gave freer expression to Canadian handling abilities than would have been the case a year or so ago when Canuck rugby formidably rested on forward confrontation and the big boot of Gareth Rees.

After the Twickenham game the touring party sat down together and debated whether to revert to former type or continue, at whatever risk, to expand. The decision was to keep trying. "If we were more conservative we would be more efficient, whereas this way we are exposing our weaknesses," Ian Birtwell, the coach, said. "Essentially, we had to decide to take these games as training sessions but when we go to Scotland next month we are viewing it as a great opportunity."

Whether treating Test matches as training runs is a good idea is debatable but Birtwell is taking the long view - the World Cup in May - in the knowledge that, having been placed in the "Group of Death" with Australia and South Africa, Canada would have no chance by simply trying to muscle their way through. Next Canada play at Murrayfield on 21 January and every Canadian in Besancon believes they have an outstanding chance.

But at Leo Lagrange, they were almost out on their feet when Sella materialised as the overlap man at a tap penalty with Scott Stewart, who might have been the one to get to him, arguing with the referee. "Our effort sort of petered out, perhaps through tired legs," Birtwell acknowledged.

France, by contrast, grew ever stronger. Philippe Benetton's first-half pushover try was sweet relief after - and before - considerable Canadian pressure and for an hour, with Thierry Lacroix's goal-kicking more than matched by Rees's, the tourists stayed in close contact.

But once Sella's slashing break had presented France's second try to Jean-Luc Sadourny, all that was left for Canada was grim defence and, stoutly though they conducted it, Sella's try faithfully reflected the disparity at the end - though scarcely throughout. As Berbizier kindly put it: "This Canadian team was worth better than that 60 points at Twickenham, and proved it." Such a nice man.

France: Tries Benetton, Sadourny, Sella; Conversions Lacroix 2; Penalties Lacroix 2; Drop goal Delaigue. Canada: Penalties Rees 3.

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 (M o ntferrand), O Roumat (Dax), A Benazzi, P Benetton (both Agen), A Costes (Montferrand).

CANADA: S Stewart; W Stanley (both 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). Replacement: M Cardinal (James Bay) for Svoboda, 78. Temporary substitute: P LeBlanc (Kats) for Jackart, 7-11.

Referee: B Leask (Australia).

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