Rugby Union: Guscott says the French are `scary'

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THE APPARENTLY beleaguered French have announced yet another personnel change for tomorrow's Five Nations rumble with England at Twickenham, replacing one Stade Francais wing, Thomas Lombard, with another, Christophe Dominici. In a sense, though, Lombard's leg injury does not matter a brass centime; as Jeremy Guscott, a self-confessed Francophile, was quick to agree yesterday, the blue-shirted visitors could field Brigitte Bardot and the Roux brothers in their three-quarter line and still run in heavenly tries from every last corner of the pitch.

"To my way of thinking, the French are the best counter- attackers in the world," said Guscott during a 20-minute celebration of Tricolore ingenuity.

"They run angles and do things in narrow channels that no other international team can even hope to emulate and, without being born and bred there, it is impossible to fully understand them. When you watch video footage of their moves, everything seems quite natural; however, when you're actually facing them on the pitch, it is often difficult to see where they're coming from. Sometimes, they pass blind and assume a colleague will arrive to continue the move. Believe me, that takes incredible confidence. I love playing against the French because I find them scary. It's always a seat- of-the-pants job because of their unpredictability and willingness to run the ball from anywhere. We've been working extremely hard on our defence over the last few months but, if your opponents run great angles, great lines and have great timing, there is nothing you can do to stop them."

Praise indeed: it was almost as if England's revered triple Lion wished he had been born in Biarritz and christened by Serge Blanco. But when you have pocketed very nearly 60 caps, played in a World Cup final and established yourself as one of the most recognisable rugby players on the planet, you can be forgiven the odd flight of fancy. Guscott has always gloried in the unique pressures of an Anglo-French conflict; indeed, the Tricolores remain his dream opponents precisely because they are capable of giving him nightmares.

"Back in the early years of the decade, when Brian Moore was at his best as England's winder-up-in-chief, we seemed to get to the French on a mental level," he continued. "The more desperate they became to get the English monkey off their backs, the more heat they put themselves under. That was why they were so relieved when they finally beat us in the last World Cup; it was incredibly important to them, even though the match itself was a pretty poor advert. Now they seem to be themselves again and I'm thankful for that. I think they bring something special to the game."

On the face of it, Guscott's eulogy sounded suspiciously like an attempt to talk up the French, just as Pierre Villepreux, the visitors' coach, talked up the English on Wednesday. Yet, although the bookmakers have Clive Woodward's Grand Slam-chasing Twickenhamites as odds-on favourites, there is a strong feeling in the home camp that a wounded Tricolore is a whole lot more dangerous than an over-confident one. Indeed, England suspect the French took Wales far too lightly in Paris 13 days ago and that their defeat on that occasion was a freak circumstance of their own making.

"Forget the events of two weeks ago," said Lawrence Dallaglio, the England captain. "Let's just remember that for all the newcomers in the threequarter line and the back row, the main body of players who brought France back- to-back Grand Slams are still there: Ibanez, Tournaire, the two locks, Carbonneau, Castaignede. Speaking as a loose forward, I think the new unit of Castel, Lievremont and Juillet looks very physical, very talented. I think this will definitely be one of the most interesting areas tomorrow.

"A game against France is always a big prospect because they have it in them to be the best side in the world. My only regret is that we meet them only once a season and have had to wait more than 12 months for another shot at them following our defeat in Paris last year. We should play them more often in my view; the Australians are now a power in the world game precisely because they took advantage of their proximity to New Zealand. The English Channel is not as wide as the Tasman, so why not increase the number of fixtures?"

Far from diluting the French reserves of experience, Lombard's late withdrawal has had the opposite effect; Dominici at least played against Guscott and company last season - indeed, he scored a try - and hence becomes the only member of a reconstructed threequarter line to have mixed it with the English foe. "I don't think the unfamiliarity of this French side has much to do with anything," said Dallaglio, guardedly. "They have a conveyor belt over there and it produces ball-handling forwards and running backs by the dozen." We shall see.