Rugby Union: French selectors reach for guillotine

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The Independent Online
OUT WITH the tumbrils and off with their heads. It has been the best part of three hugely successful years since Jean-Claude Skrela, Pierre Villepreux and the rest of the Tricolore hierarchy felt the need to cut a swathe through the pampered aristocrats at the top end of French rugby, but last weekend's defeat by Wales in Paris persuaded the selectors to react with a fervour bordering on the revolutionary.

When the French cross the Channel to exchange pleasantries with the Grand Slam-chasing English at Twickenham on Saturday week, they will do so without their try-scoring wing from Biarritz, Philippe Bernat-Salles, and Philippe Benetton, the back-row "Bull of Agen". Marc Raynaud, the new open-side flanker from Narbonne, was also guillotined, so to speak - his sojourn in the Test squad lasted precisely two matches and 80 minutes of action - as was the reserve hooker, Marc Dal Maso.

Christophe Dominici, a big success in last year's Five Nations before injury curtailed his campaign, is back in the frame after a sharp run of form at Stade Francais; he will compete for one of the two wing positions with his club colleague, Thomas Lombard, and Xavier Garbajosa of Toulouse.

Olivier Magne, fit again after missing the Wales game, returns at the expense of Reynaud; Marc de Rougemont, the Begles-Bordeaux hooker last capped against Italy in 1997, fills the gap left by Dal Maso. The squad is completed by Christophe Juillet, the Dean Richards copycat from Stade Francais, and Pascal Jordani, the Dax centre. Jordani comes in for Richard Dourthe, who will miss the rest of the championship with a dislocated shoulder.

The most contentious selection will be in midfield, where Skrela and company must decide whether to retain the services of David Aucagne. The Pau outside-half came off the bench when Dourthe was hurt in the fifth minute, with Thomas Castaignede moving to centre. It was not one of the great tactical successes in rugby history, but if the French want Castaignede to return to his optimum position they will either have to give Jordani a debut at outside centre or move Lombard inside from the left wing. Either way, it is a gamble.

Somehow, the Irish selectors seem rather more sanguine in the aftermath of defeat. Warren Gatland, the national coach, announced a 23-man squad for his side's next match at Murrayfield and 21 of them were involved against England in Dublin last weekend. The newcomers are Jonathan Bell, the Dungannon centre who has now recovered from his dead leg, and Trevor Brennan, the overtly physical blind-side flanker from St Mary's College who was capped as a replacement against the French last month.

There were conflicting developments at two of English rugby's pioneering professional clubs yesterday as Newcastle and Richmond, both promoted to the top flight in 1997, sought to pick up the pieces left by their departing major investors. Newcastle's mood was far the more positive: the reigning Premiership champions were expected to announce today that a new board, chaired by the millionaire businessman and long-time rugby enthusiast David Thompson, would lead the club into next season and beyond.

Thompson, who made his money in information technology, was thought to have secured the 76 per cent stake in the club recently relinquished by Sir John Hall. Newcastle sources said he would run the club with help from Paul Mackings, the former West Hartlepool chief executive, and John Gray, a representative of the Newcastle-Gosforth shareholding group that retained a 24 per cent stake under Hall. Rob Andrew will also sit on the board while continuing as director of rugby.

Conversely, the Richmond playing staff were having their immediate futures outlined at a private meeting. Plunged into administration last week by their disillusioned backer Ashley Levett, the Reading-based Londoners were being told how the operation would be streamlined in an effort to stave off receivership.

FRANCE SQUAD (v England, Twickenham, 20 March): Backs: D Aucagne (Pau), P Carbonneau (Brive), T Castaignede (Castres), F Comba (Stade Francais), C Dominici (Stade Francais), X Garbajosa (Toulouse), P Giordani (Dax), C Laussucq (Stade Francais), T Lombard (Stade Francais), E Ntamack (Toulouse). Forwards: D Auradou (Stade Francais), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), C Califano (Toulouse), R Castel (Beziers), R Ibanez (Perpignan), C Juillet (Stade Francais), T Lievremont (Perpignan), O Magne (Brive), S Marconnet (Stade Francais), F Pelous (Toulouse), M de Rougemont (Begles), F Tournaire (Toulouse).

IRELAND SQUAD (v Scotland, Murrayfield, 20 March): Backs: C O'Shea (London Irish), J Bishop (London Irish), G Dempsey (Terenure College), K Maggs (Bath), R Henderson (Wasps), J Bell (Dungannon), E Elwood (Galwegians), D Humphreys (Dungannon), C McGuinness (St Mary's College), C Scally (UCD). Forwards: P Clohessy (Young Munster), J Fitzpatrick (Dungannon), P Wallace (Saracens), R Nesdale (Newcastle), K Wood (Harlequins), P Johns (Saracens), J Davidson (Castres), M Galwey (Shannon), T Brennan (St Mary's College), A Ward (Ballynahinch), D O'Cuinneagain (Sale), V Costello (St Mary's College), E Miller (Terenure College).

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