Rugby Union: Berbizier ends the ceasefire

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The Independent Online
THE uneasy peace between the English and French rugby camps before Saturday's opening game in the Five Nations' Championship fractured yesterday when both sides opened verbal fire.

In the blue corner: Pierre Berbizier, the French coach, accusing England of 'verbal and physical provocation'; in the red corner: Geoff Cooke, England's manager, preying on France's lack of self- discipline. 'I am happy to say that they have self-destructed - and long may it continue,' he said.

Berbizier opened in deceptively emollient fashion, and then went on the offensive. 'It's time this whole situation was defused,' he said. 'The climate of provocation does nobody any good, and if we have any differences they should be settled simply by playing the game.

'If the English want to continue verbal and physical provocation, it's up to them. However I am putting my trust in the referee, not only to punish any violence but also to police the sort of provocation the English have used in the past.

'I can already envisage the spitting and swearing of Brian Moore. Surely they don't need to resort to that sort of tactic to beat us. The English are sufficiently strong not to have to debase themselves, and the game of rugby, like that.'

Although Cooke did not respond directly to Berbizier's comments ('there's no way I'm going to get involved in a slanging match. He's entitled to his opinion'), he did make some pointed remarks about the French side. 'The pressure from us forced the type of situation which the French have found themselves in, of conceding penalties and last year having two men sent off. What happened last year in Paris could, for sure, happen again. '

He hoped that England's five successive wins against France would give them an edge. 'We are in the ascendancy. We have won the last few encounters. Our side is settled. Their most recent performance was a home defeat and they are playing away.

'France will try to play with verve and freedom of expression plus disciplined play when it matters, but our record proves we are not vulnerable to counter attacks. Our defensive record is the best.'

England had another training session yesterday, at which the four players who had weekend injury problems - Will Carling, Dewi Morris, Ian Hunter and Peter Winterbottom, all confirmed their fitness.

There was less good news in Scotland, where the Bristol prop, Alan Sharp, had to pull out of his Five Nations debut against Ireland, when a calf injury suffered a reaction to two strenuous training sessions on Wednesday. His place will be taken by Alan Watt, a 6ft 5in convert from the second row.

Ireland reported a clean bill of health after their training session in Dublin yesterday morning before flying to Edinburgh.

Five Nations' Focus, page 30