Rugby Union: Formidable French in no mood for compromise

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING TO Richard Pool-Jones, rugby's bilingual contribution to the Franglais industry, this season's Heineken Cup is wide open. The Parisian sporting community's favourite Englishman is absolutely right: any of the six French sides could end up as champions. As for the rest of Europe... well, they need to find quick answers to some very serious questions if they are not to be humiliated by a Gallic contingent rejuvenated by that wondrous Tricolore victory over New Zealand in the World Cup semi- final.

Last weekend's opening salvo of cross-border hostility was extraordinary indeed; not for the quality of the rugby, although the Toulouse performance in Bath was something else, but for the statistical fall-out from an illuminating collection of matches. The French accounted for no fewer than 16 of the 21 tries scored in games involving their sides; to put it another way, a quarter of the competing teams claimed almost 35 per cent of the total first-round touchdowns.

It was a similar story in the second-tier European Shield, where 11 French teams notched up more than half the tries scored by the 28 contenders. No French side in either competition failed to cross the enemy line and only two of the 17 Tricolore outfits - Narbonne and, funnily enough, the former European champions of Brive - scored fewer tries than their opponents. Pool-Jones, capped on England's open-side flank during the "tour from hell" in the summer of last year, detects a new boldness about French rugby in the wake of the World Cup. "The performance against the All Blacks was fantastic, of course, and the fact that France made the final was great for rugby in this country," he said this week.

This afternoon, the Cambridge Blue and his Stade Francais club-mates take on Leicester in front of 13,000 passionate Welford Roaders and, if the Parisians scale the peaks visited by Toulouse in the West Country seven days ago, the Tigers' European challenge will be stranded in the foothills without a compass. The visitors may have lost their gifted coach, Bernard Laporte, to the French Test team - "Bernard is a leader of men who made a lasting impact on this club," said Pool-Jones - but with full internationals in every area of their line-up, they start as favourites.

Both Cardiff and Swansea, who together constitute the serious end of the Welsh threat, are also likely to discover some important things about themselves in the company of French opposition today. Cardiff visit Montferrand, whose coach, Victor Boffelli, is approaching the game with all due solemnity by describing it as "our biggest match of the season". Swansea, meanwhile, have the thankless task of facing Toulouse at Les Sept-Deniers. The All Whites have again omitted Arwel Thomas, one of the few British outside- halves with the breadth of imagination to test the Alain Penauds and Emile Ntamacks of this world. Lee Davies retains the No 10 shirt he wore against Padova at St Helen's last week.

Northampton visit the weakest of the French outfits, Grenoble, who are still in the dog-house after a violent finale to their match in Edinburgh eight days ago. Willy Taofifenua, their captain, has been cited for punching an opponent after no-side - the official blazers of European Rugby Cup Ltd, moving as slowly as usual, have yet to convene a hearing - while for their part, the Frenchmen are complaining of racial abuse from unspecified Edinburgh Reivers personnel. All of which should ensure a lively encounter at Stade Lesdiguieres, where the 18-year-old scrum-half, Ian Vass, plays the second game of his senior Northampton career.