France encouraged by narrow defeat

Rise of young talent sends strong signals from across the Channel.
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The Independent Online

New Zealand's Tri-Nations squad narrowly avoided what would have been a major embarrassment in France on Thursday - and that could be a sign that French standards are finally on the rise.

New Zealand's Tri-Nations squad narrowly avoided what would have been a major embarrassment in France on Thursday - and that could be a sign that French standards are finally on the rise.

It took tries in the last 10 minutes from their captain, Ruben Wiki, and the Leeds second-rower Ali Lauiti'iti to steer the Kiwis safely to a 24-20 victory in Carcassonne. Given that New Zealand are pretty much on a par with Australia and Great Britain at the moment, even that near- miss counts as remarkable.

The French have an Australian coach, Mick Aldous, in charge on a six-month contract, but there was little sign of this sort of transformation in his first two matches at the helm. Those saw France win 58-10 in Russia, but lose 42-4 to England in Avignon in their other match in the European Nations' Cup last month.

Aldous claimed to have seen some signs in those games that the traditional French style of play could be successfully updated. "We can see that our approach is bearing fruit," he said. "We want to play in an expansive style, with tough forwards up front and with French flair and spontaneity."

To that end, Aldous fielded an experimental side with an average age of only 24 in Carcassonne, dropping the regular fixture Laurent Frayssinous, pairing Maxime Grésèque and Julien Rinaldi at half-back and giving Grégory Mounis his first start at loose forward.

At 19, Mounis is seen as a star of the future for club and country. He has been outstanding at stand-off for Union Treiziste Catalane this season, and will be one of their cornerstones when, as Perpignan, they join Super League for 2006.

Mounis is the sort of player that the game in France has too often lost to rugby union in recent years, but it is hoped that a revitalised national team, plus the chance to play in Super League, will keep him and his contemporaries on board.

The performance against New Zealand was also a testament to the cross-fertilisation already taking place. Grésèque, who scored 12 points and was the man of the match by some distance, played for Featherstone Rovers in National League One last season, along with Freddie Zitter, who scored another of France's tries.

If that sort of experience helps to raise standards, then so should France's involvement, albeit peripheral, in the Tri-Nations.

In an ideal world, they would be incorporated in the event itself - they were the architects of the game's first international festival, the 1954 World Cup, and were perhaps the strongest side in the world 50 years ago.

The sad fact at the moment, however, is that they could not compete at the top level on the week-by-week basis that would be required by the tournament's format. Instead, a Tri-Nations in England gives an opportunity for the Kiwis and the Kangaroos to nip across the Channel.

Australia are due in Toulouse next Sunday, and if France can put up a decent performance against them they really will feel that they are on the right path.

As for the Kiwis, there were a few special factors at work that should caution Great Britain against reading too much into their display with next Saturday's Tri-Nations game at Hull in mind. For one thing, they started with a line-up designed to give fringe players a game, with regulars like the Cayless brothers and Wiki only on the bench.

For another, a couple of their more important players were rested altogether. Leaving out Brent Webb meant that they had no specialist full-back and no front-line goal-kicker, while the absence of the world's best teenager - with all due respect to Mounis and everyone else - Sonny Bill Williams, spared France no end of problems.

Those two will be back at the KC Stadium, as could Thomas Leuluai, the scrum-half whose dislocated shoulder was thought to have ruled him out for the rest of the tournament.

It will be a very different New Zealand, but if France continue the improvement that they showed this week, they could one day add a welcome new element to international competition.