Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: Berbizier and Benetton rebuff French style counsellors: France drive to title

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France. . .26

Wales. . . 10

TRIUMPHALISM was surprisingly thin here yesterday after France had captured the Five Nations title with only that narrow defeat at Twickenham in January to blemish the achievement. After Saturday's win over Wales, the French coach, Pierre Berbizier, looked more like a man who had lost his house than gained a new trophy for his display cabinet.

At least Jeff Tordo managed to enjoy it. France's tireless captain shut from his mind any aesthetic reservations about the team's style of play in this tournament and said: 'A couple of months ago people said we would be contesting the wooden spoon and yet here we are at the top.' Quite right, too.

Berbizier deserves better than to have to face a tribunal of style counsellors disaffected with the manner in which France have won the cup. The current side have not managed to move the ball around with quite the fluency of the great French teams, but then this has hardly been a championship in which free running has been able to thrive. Once again at the Parc des Princes, most attacking moves ended in a midfield tangle of arms and legs, to the detriment of overall entertainment.

While it is true that Berbizier's guiding principle over the last nine weeks has been the need for immediate success, he has hardly subjugated altogether the French expansive tradition, as Philippe Benetton's second try demonstrated (though there was, unquestionably, a forward pass along the route). Throughout this glorious spring afternoon, there was always the sense that France can still run holes in a gale when conditions (and the rules?) allow.

The expected drama of a 45-minute wait for the result of the Ireland-England game never materialised because France were already over the horizon when the Paris match moved into its final spirited phase. At 21-3 to France in the second half, many expected this much-changed Welsh side to wilt, but in fact Alan Davies's team found a new resolve to break from the siege and managed to produce a try in the corner through the incongrously-named Nigel Walker.

If Berbizier and France are unjustly derided by purists in their own ranks, there is a danger that Wales will take almost too much encouragement from their fightback in the later stages of the match. Certainly, the grins on Welsh faces outside the dressing room made it easy to forget that the team have finished bottom of the table with one win and three consecutive defeats.

Davies, wisely enough, avoided being drawn into excessive euphoria but did acknowledge the positive elements in his team's performance. 'We made it into the French half only about twice during the first part of the game, but I was encouraged by the way the team took the game to the French (after half-time) and mixed it up a bit,' Davies said. 'We moved the ball more today than we have all season.

'These players have got true spirit and commitment. They have, in a fair bit of adversity, come through. Spirit is something you can't buy, but what we've got to do now is put in place some of the things you can buy. And we've got a long, long way to go.'

Possibly the main failing of Wales was the lack of support and positioning at the breakdown point. When Gibbs, Clement and Webster did penetrate the smog-like French defence with downfield charges, little was achieved after the ball-carrier was finally mobbed by blue shirts. Against that, Rupert Moon, making his debut on particularly hostile territory, was as tenacious in digging the ball out of rucks as Andrew Lamerton, the 22- year-old hooker, was in diving into 'every nook and cranny', as Bob Norster, the team manager, put it.

Berbizier was far more open on the subject of Wales than he was on his own team (the difference between this French side and previous champions? 'This team has won a cup,' he said drily). 'They (the Welsh) showed today that they've got potenial,' Berbizier said, 'but they've got to keep working to get some composure and confidence, which are the things they lack in the important moments of the game.'

As for Berbizier and France, they now face a period of further scrutiny from the romantics, but what you can say is that any team containing such formidable performers as Lafond, Cabannes, Benetton, Benazzi and Tordo are hardly below the poverty line in terms of natural talent.

What will the Australians and New Zealanders make of it all? Berbizier acknowledged that teeth will hardly be chattering south of the equator when saying: 'One day we will see the World Cup won by a team from the northern hemisphere, but we can only do that if we have a high level of competition (in the Five Nations' Championship).'

The implication was that such a 'high level' has been lacking in this tournament. How sad it will be if Berbizier starts agreeing with his own detractors.

France: Tries Benetton 2, Lafond; Conversion Lafond; Penalties Lacroix 2. Wales: Try Walker; Conversion Jenkins; Penalty Jenkins.

FRANCE: J-B Lafond (Begles); P Saint-Andre (Montferrand), P Sella (Agen), T Lacroix (Dax), P Hontas (Biarritz); F Mesnel (Racing), A Hueber (Toulon); L Armary (Lourdes), J-F Tordo (Nice, capt), L Seigne (Merignac), P Benetton (Agen), A Benazzi (Agen), O Roumat (Dax), M Cecillon (Bourgoin), L Cabannes (Racing).

WALES: A Clement (Swansea); I Evans (Llanelli, capt), N Davies (Llanelli), S Gibbs (Swansea), N Walker (Cardiff); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Moon (Llanelli); R Evans (Llanelli), A Lamerton (Llanelli), H Williams-Jones (South Wales Police), P Davies (Llanelli), G Llewellyn (Neath), M Perego (Llanelli), E Lewis (Llanelli), R Webster (Swansea). Replacements: J Davies (Neath) for R Evans 56; P Arnold (Swansea) for Perego 64.

Referee: O Doyle (Ireland).