Rugby Union: Ibanez becomes captain as French selectors change tune

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The French selectors are a notoriously contrary bunch, so it comes as no great surprise that they have decided to go into next week's Five Nations opener with England without Alain Penaud, Laurent Leflamand, David Venditti and Olivier Merle, all of whom played influential roles in last year's victory at Twickenham. No one takes anything for granted with Jean- Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux among the hirers and firers.

Indeed, the new broom has swept its way into every corner of the French squad. Raphael Ibanez, capped six times at hooker, will captain the side in place of Philippe Saint-Andre - the Gloucester wing has received the bum's rush, along with fellow English exiles Thierry Lacroix and Laurent Cabannes - and that means Marc Dal Maso, the brilliant Agen front-rower, will have to be satisfied with a place on the bench.

"I am not overawed by the prospect," said Ibanez, who has shaped up superbly for Dax this season. If he is good enough to keep Dal Maso out of the side, he has no reason to be.

Injuries have accounted for Abdel Benazzi and Emile Ntamack, two world- class performers from the 1995 World Cup squad, so it seems likely that Thomas Lievremont, the Perpignan loose forward, and Philippe Bernat-Salles of Pau will fill the gaps at No 8 and right wing. Thomas Castaignede, of Castres, a high- priority target for Saracens as they seek a replacement for Michael Lynagh, is expected to play at outside-half with Philippe Carbonneau, who captains Brive in their Heineken Cup final with Bath this weekend, back at scrum- half.

Despite all the changes, the Tricolores are still expected to take the field at the new Stade de France venue in Paris with at least eight of the men who staged the famous smash and grab raid on England last March. Skrela will confirm his line-up tomorrow week, 48 hours after Clive Woodward's scheduled team announcement.

FRANCE SQUAD: Forwards: R Ibanez (Dax, capt), P Benetton (Agen), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), C Califano (Toulouse), T Cleda (Pau), M Dal Maso (Agen), M Lievremont (Stade Francais), T Lievremont (Perpignan), O Magne (Brive), F Pelous (Toulouse), C Soulettes (Beziers), F Tournaire (Toulouse). Backs: D Aucagne (Pau), P Bernat-Salles (Pau), P Carbonneau (Brive), T Castaignede (Castres), C Dominici (Stade Francais), F Galthie (Colomiers), S Glas (Bourgoin), C Lamaison (Brive), J-L Sadourny (Colomiers).

- Chris Hewett