Rugby Union: Five Nations focus: French seek cheers after tears: England's first opponents emerge from crisis. Ian Borthwick reports from Paris

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The Independent Online
FRENCH rugby has always had a sublime gift of self- destruction, and nothing better illustrates this than the shenanigans of the past few months. And while Pierre Berbizier, the coach, and his new captain, Jean-Francois Tordo, have somehow managed over the past few weeks to achieve a sense of unity within the team, the French none the less travel to play England at Twickenham on Saturday with the shadow of the French rugby federation's (FFR) latest crisis still hanging over them.

Just two months ago, on the same day as England were beating the Springboks, French heads were drooping in Nantes as the Tricolours crashed to a humiliating 20-24 defeat at the hands of some very average Argentinians. The first home loss in history to the Pumas was bad enough, but the fact that it came just two weeks after their historic first home victory over South Africa (29-16) was eloquent proof of a deep malaise within the French rugby establishment. 'The team was functioning in an unhealthy climate,' Berbizier explained. 'We had none of the composure you need to prepare for a match. It had got to the point where what was happening off the field had become more important than what was happening on it.'

The aftermath of Nantes saw French rugby shaken to the core, and at this stage the principle loser is Robert Paparemborde, the former manager, while Berbizier and the FFR president, Bernard Lapasset, have seen their authority strengthened. At least, that is, until the next crisis.

At one stage, however, it looked certain that Berbizier's head would roll. Only two days after the game in Nantes, Paparemborde, in his function as vice-president of the FFR and responsible for what is called le cote sportif, called for Berbizier and his assistant, Cristophe Mombet, to be sacked and their places to be taken by Pierre Villepreux and Jean- Claude Skrela, the two popular former internationals who had coached Toulouse to the supremacy of French rugby in the 1980s.

'Since Berbizier was appointed we haven't progressed by one centimetre,' Paparemborde claimed. 'And those who dislike us will say that we have even gone backwards. We now have to admit that we are no longer part of the leading nations of the rugby world.'

Unfortunately for Paparemborde, his impetuous declaration raised the hackles of Lapasset, who happened to be out of the country attending the International Rugby Board meeting in England. For the 44-year-old Lapasset, this was not so much a misplaced call for a change of coach but a serious threat to his own authority and to that of the FFR as an institution. 'Berbizier is still the coach and will remain so until I gave my authority,' he retorted from Bristol.

Immediately on his return to France, Lapasset summoned an extraordinary meeting of the executive, a meeting which was nevertheless widely expected to seal Berbizier's fate. In theory, Paparemborde could count on majority support within the committee, while the choice of Villepreux, although smacking heavily of demagogy, was a strong argument in his favour.

On 24 November, however, after three hours of vigorous debate in the basement of the FFR headquarters in Paris, Paparemborde saw the tables turned on him. The support of some of his closest allies dropped away and, still insisting that he was acting 'in the better interests of rugby', Paparemborde announced his resignation as team manager, and general manager of all national selections.

The buoyant Lapasset then emerged to announce that not only would Berbizier be retained as coach, but that a new selection committee would be formed, with Guy Laporte, the former outside- half, as chief selector. 'It is time for the French team to regain some of its composure, its enthusiasm and its pride,' Laporte observed. 'Our team has become fragile. The backbone of the side - I mean the Nos 2, 8, 9, 10 and 15 - is not as strong as it should be. We have lost a number of great players such as Blanco, Rodriguez and Berbizier and we still have not replaced them.'

All but one of Laporte's new selection panel are respected former internationals, while the odd man out - Patrick Nadal, a former centre from Mont-de-Marsan - is regarded as one of France's greatest forgotten geniuses. The others are Francis Haget, Philippe Dintrans, Jean-Pierre Garuet, Andre Herrero, who are responsible for the forwards, and, for the backs, Jean-Pierre Romeu, Laporte and Berbizier.

So it was back to the drawing board and, on 12 December, Laporte announced a squad including Didier Camberabero, the outside- half discarded since the World Cup, plus the seasoned veterans Philippe Sella, Marc Cecillon, Jean-Baptiste Lafond and Franck Mesnel, all of whom had been 'rested' during the summer tour to Argentina. What is more, individual selectors revealed that 'a reserve list' had been drawn up for the Five Nations' Championship, including names like Didier Codorniou, who last played for France in 1985, and Jean Condom, the evergreen second row.

They have also persisted, despite his first catastrophic experience against Argentina, with the choice of Tordo as captain, although the woolly-haired stonemason from Nice has now been picked as hooker to leave room for Laurent Cabannes and the explosive Philippe Benetton in the back row. But Berbizier has no reservations about Tordo, even though his lack of experience as a line-out thrower means they will have to revert to the practice of using the scrum-half for this task, a French aberration favoured by Jacques Fouroux from 1985 to 1989. 'Jean-Francois is exactly the sort of player and captain we need,' Berbizier said. 'Among all these young players he is an example of enthusiasm, simplicity, generosity and humility. These are exactly the sort of qualities we are trying to cultivate in the French team.'

As they assemble in Paris today to begin their preparation for Saturday's game, the French realise the immensity of the task facing them at Twickenham. But for Tordo himself, the main aim is to re-establish their credibility, and their dignity, as worthy opponents. 'The English have a very strong team and they have proved that by winning two Grand Slams,' he said. 'We are coming to England to write the first page in the history of a new French side. We have to remember, though, that sometimes there is no shame in being beaten by a better team. But, win or lose, we are determined to walk off the pitch at Twickenham with our heads held high.'

------------------------------------------------------------------- FRANCE SINCE 1992 FIVE NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP ------------------------------------------------------------------- 28 May France 25 Romania 6 (Le Havre) 4 July Argentina 12 France 27 (first Test, Buenos Aires) 11 July Argentina 9 France 33 (second Test, Buenos Aires) 17 October France 15 South Africa 20 (first Test, Lyons) 24 October France 29 South Africa 16 (second Test, Paris) 14 November France 20 Argentina 24 (Nantes) -------------------------------------------------------------------

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