Much to the amazement of those seduced by their back-to-back Grand Slams in 1997 and 1998, the French have made an almighty "coq-up" of this season's tournament. Bludgeoned to the very brink of defeat in Dublin six weeks ago - but for the depth of Richard Dourthe's warrior spirit and the addled nerves of David Humphreys, their championship aspirations would have expired there and then - their subsequent performance in Paris was so full of holes that they might have been coached by Monsieur Gruyere rather than Messieurs Skrela and Villepreux. "Individually and collectively, our defence disappeared," agreed Castaignede on Thursday night.
And yet there were moments against Wales when the Tricolores rejected the ridiculous in favour of the sublime; indeed, Graham Henry, the visiting coach, expressed the view that the French achieved things that "should not be allowed on the field of play". Castaignede's own try late in the second half was nothing less than a hymn to the glory of uninhibited attacking rugby and it would be certifiably insane to disregard a team capable of stringing together 17 passes and six rucks while directly involving all but three of their number.
Agreed, form and fitness - rather, the absence of them - have forced the French into performing major selectorial surgery and they openly admit to particular problems at outside centre, where Pascal Giordani makes his international debut, and on the openside flank, where Richard Castel of Beziers attempts to minimise the tactical carnage wrought by Olivier Magne's foot injury. "Magne is a serious loss, of course," admitted Pierre Villepreux this week. "To play rugby of ambition and imagination, we need a loose forward who can go very wide, far away from the breakdown in centre field. Perhaps Castel can do this. Who knows?"
According to Richard Pool-Jones, the ex-pat Englishman whose performances on the openside flank for Stade Francais have earned him such esteem in a desperately hard school of rugby, Villepreux is asking a lot of Castel.
"Richard is a strong player, don't get me wrong, but Beziers are not a powerful side at the moment and the step up from that standard to Five Nations level is one hell of a big one," he said. At the same time, Pool- Jones considers the late introduction of his club-mate, Christophe Dominici, on the left wing to be equally significant. "He's the form wing in France; he's hungry for work and his defence is immaculate." Some you win, some you lose.
There was sufficient cohesion and abrasive commitment among the English forwards in Dublin earlier this month to suggest that the headline acts - Martin Johnson, Tim Rodber, Lawrence Dallaglio - are once again singing in unison after the discord that undermined their efforts on Calcutta Cup day. Johnson, in particular, is operating at the very summit of his powers and if Olivier Brouzet and Fabien Pelous go walkabout this afternoon as they did in Paris last time out they will find themselves on the wrong end of something profoundly unpleasant.
But Raphael Ibanez, the French captain, is unlikely to allow his second rows the luxury of a second afternoon off. The 26-year-old hooker, a proud Basque who has played all his club rugby in the shadow of the Pyrenees, is slowly emerging as an implacable Tricolore leader in the grand tradition of Lucien Mias and Jean-Pierre Rives and, if his recent front row performances have been a notch down on those of last season, he proved both in Dublin and in Paris that he was capable of dragging an off-colour side up through the gears in the final minutes.
It is four years since the visitors last lost to England and, for all the kidology beamed across the channel from the French training camp at Chateau Ricard in the early part of the week, nothing inflicted on them by the Welsh a fortnight ago has altered their view that the 78th and last Five Nations title is still theirs for the taking. "We must defend, for sure," said Castaignede, "but equally, we must not forget to attack. If we defend properly, anything is possible."
Indeed. The bookmakers, flush from their nice little killing on Cheltenham Gold Cup day, may be favouring England unusually heavily in what is, after all, a two-horse race, but there has been an eerie confidence about the French since their arrival here on Thursday. Regardless of some of the wilder pro-English predictions, Dallaglio and company will happily accept any victory margin on offer.
Scotland v Wales preview, page 23
ENGLAND v FRANCE
M Perry (Bath) 15 E Ntamack (Toulouse)
D Rees (Sale) 14 X Garbajosa (Toulouse)
J Wilkinson (Newcastle) 13 P Giordani (Dax)
J Guscott (Bath) 12 F Comba (Stade Francais)
D Luger (Harlequins) 11 C Dominici (Stade Francais)
M Catt (Bath) 10 T Castaignede (Castres)
K Bracken (Saracens) 9 P Carbonneau (Brive)
J Leonard (Harlequins) 1 S Marconnet (Stade Francais)
R Cockerill (Leicester) 2 R Ibanez (Perpignan, capt)
D Garforth (Leicester) 3 F Tournaire (Toulouse)
M Johnson (Leicester) 4 O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux)f
T Rodber (Northampton) 5 F Pelous (Toulouse)
R Hill (Saracens) 6 T Lievremont (Perpignan)
N Back (Leicester) 7 R Castel (Beziers)
L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt) 8 C Juillet (Stade Francais)
Referee: C Hawke (NZ) Kick-off: 2.30 (Sky Sports 2)
Replacements: N Beal (Northampton); B-J Mather (Sale); M Dawson (Northampton); M Corry (Leicester); G Archer (Newcastle); V Ubogu (Bath); N McCarthy (Gloucester).
Replacements: C Laussucq (Stade Francais); D Aucagne (Pau); P Bernat-Salles (Biarritz); M Raynaud (Narbonne); D Auradou (Stade Francais); C Califano (Toulouse); M De Rougemont (Begles-Bordeaux).Reuse content