Rugby Union: French youth's Liberation Day

Paul Trow hears the fears and hopes of an enigmatic side's injured captain
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The Independent Online
SO ONCE again heads have rolled by the tumbrilful. But after two defeats by South Africa, the second an unprecedented 50-point thrashing in Paris, it was only to be expected.

French rugby does not take kindly to humiliations and the selectorial guillotine was duly applied to last season's Grand Slam winners. As a consequence, the squad to take on England in the Stade de France on Saturday is almost more noteworthy for the names which are missing - Cabannes, Lacroix, Merle, Benazzi, Ntamack and Saint-Andre, to name but six.

Granted, the last three are ruled out by injury, but it seems that the French have deliberately named an inexperienced line-up led by an international infant to confront a team in rampant mood following that epic 26-26 draw with the All Blacks.

Traditionally, though, a new French XV spells danger. At least that is the hope if not necessarily the expectation of Philippe Saint-Andre, the sometime left wing with Montferrand and now in residence at Gloucester.

"I think it's too open to predict because England played very well against New Zealand and the French played very badly against South Africa," said the 30-year-old who is recovering from a hamstring injury. "The match is at the new stadium and the French team will be highly motivated in front of an 80,000 crowd. It will certainly be exciting. But there will be only a few experienced players in a young French side and the absence of both Benazzi and Merle leaves a big gap in the pack."

Saint-Andre, who has led France a joint-record 34 times, clearly doubts the wisdom of handing the captaincy to the 24-year-old hooker Raphael Ibanez, four of whose five caps have been as a replacement. "Making Ibanez the captain was a big surprise. They had already offered it to Jean-Luc Sadourny but he didn't accept it. He just wants to concentrate on his own game and not be blamed if things go wrong.

"But I thought they would then ask Olivier Brouzet. I don't know whether they did, but Brouzet captains Bordeaux and he does an excellent job. Ibanez captains Dax but has little experience. He is not the No 1 hooker in France either, so there must be a question mark against him."

The French team manager Jo Maso and the coaches Pierre Villepreux and Jean-Claude Skrela, would doubtless dismiss Saint-Andre's fears, but he is otherwise optimistic about who and what England can expect to face. After the captaincy, the most controversial selection was that of the enfant prodigue Thomas Castaignede at fly-half. To many, this seems a risky choice, but Saint- Andre is in agreement. "This year Thomas has been playing for Castres at No 10. At Toulouse he was always at centre. He's had a few fitness problems, but he's playing well at fly-half now. He's studying in Castres which is why he switched clubs but his rugby has benefited as well." So England are warned that the man who broke their hearts with an injury- time drop goal when they last visited Paris two years ago must be watched.

Along with Ibanez, the squad contains at least three other unfamiliar names. Saint-Andre's own likely stand-in on the left wing is 25-year-old Christophe Dominici. "He's normally solid defensively and very fast though he's not particularly big. I think that Thomas Lievremont will be the No 8. He's big, strong and fast - just what we need. Another new name is Thierry Cleda. He can fill any of the back-five positions in the scrum so should make an ideal replacement."

After missing last year's championship, Saint-Andre is keen not to suffer a second personal Five Nations whitewash. "My objective is to be fit to face Ireland in Paris [on 7 March]. I've had only 25 minutes of rugby - in the league against Wasps when I got injured again - since the second Test with South Africa.

"I'd like to be captain again as long as I'm playing well but I'd be happy just to play on the wing. At the moment I'm tied with Jean-Pierre Rives for captaining France the most times so I'd like to beat him if I can. My record is 25 wins and nine losses - slightly better than Rives', I think.

"But if the new captain does well then I'm happy to play under him. I've played nine years and 69 times for France and as a sportsman it's been an honour."

Certainly, it can rarely have been dull. "It's always the case with French teams that we are good the match after we've been bad. Steffi Graf is the same. We are the Steffi Graf of rugby."