Rugby Union: Ibanez's new young France confound their detractors

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The Independent Online
Paul Stephens saw the worst fears of the doom-mongers among French rugby fans prove a long way wide of the mark at the Stade de France on Saturday.

In the days and hours leading up to this marvellous match it appeared that all France had installed England as clear favourites to win the Five Nations' Championship. We see now this particular piece of collective foolishness was as misleading as the nonsense talked about the suitability of the playing area. Paris was at fever pitch speculating on how France could contain England. After all, a side capable of running New Zealand so close last December must not only be treated with respect, but feared.

By the time darkness had fallen over the futuristic silhouette of the magnificent Stade de France, those present had witnessed a performance fit to grace any ground, never mind the one to celebrate the birth of France's glistening new stadium.

The Parc des Princes has been host to some matches to salivate over, but this was something else. Coming from a team which showed eight changes from the one humiliated by South Africa, 52-10, in the last game at the Parc, the new outfit under a young captain, Raphael Ibanez, appear remarkably mature. It seemed it was they who had been together for five matches, not England.

They even kept their cool when the referee, Ireland's David McHugh, refused to allow France tries by Thomas Castaignede and a second for Christophe Dominici. McHugh was the touch judge, remember, who flagged the Brive second row Yvan Manhes for obstruction in the closing minutes of the European Cup final in Bordeaux allowing Jon Callard to win the match for Bath with the last kick of the game. For the second week running Mr McHugh did a French team few favours. Cataignede was adjudged not to have grounded the ball, while Dominici was called back as Stephane Glas's pass to the winger was forward.

If either of those scores had gone in, or if Olivier Magne had been able to release Philippe Bernat-Salles for a second try, England's embarrassment would have known no bounds. Add to this the other moment of French rapture when Glas could have crowned victory with a try to die for, but knocked- on when attempting to gather his chip ahead after bursting past the England cover, and you can understand why the England coach Clive Woodward acknowledged that the scoreline flattered England.

But there was nothing flattering about the way France played. What eventually deceived us all was not that France won - albeit by a much narrower margin than they deserved - but how they did so. In Castaignede, France had the player of a memorable match. Though if a top 10, had been announced for this particular contest, it is doubtful if there would have been an English name among them; except perhaps for that of Lawrence Dallaglio.

While Castaignede was France's inspiration Glas, Dominici, Christophe Lamaison and Bernat-Salles all outshone their English counterparts. And in Jean-Luc Sadourny at full-back made Mike Catt look cumbersome. Just like England's forwards.

Brimming with self-belief and with the pace and willingness to run the ball from anywhere and everywhere, France left England with nowhere to hide. Thank goodness England only have to play them once this year.