Rugby Union: Injured Benazzi could miss French finale

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The Independent Online
France are facing the prospect of having to play their decisive Five Nations' Championship match against Scotland without their captain, Abdelatif Benazzi, and may be forced to a reorganise their back row.

The French captain, who sustained a rib injury last Saturday while helping his side to secure their first victory over England at Twickenham for a decade, has been unable to train with his club, Agen, this week and he now faces a struggle to be fit in time to face the Scots at the Parc des Princes on 15 March.

As France prepare for their attempt to complete their first Grand Slam in 10 years, they also have fears for the fitness of their No 8, Fabien Pelous. He is nursing an injured right hip and is also doubtful. If neither he nor Benazzi recovers, only Olivier Magne of the trio who provided the power behind the pack at Twickenham would line up in Paris.

By contrast, the Scots were able yesterday to name the same players who steamrollered Ireland at Murrayfield on Saturday. It is the first time since last season's campaign that the Scots have kept the same side for successive games, and their team manager, Arthur Hastie, described yesterday's selection meeting as "basically a rubber stamp job''.

Their coach, Richie Dixon, though, pointed out that Scotland have done their best to achieve a degree of consistency in selection this season. "The team has been fairly stable apart from the midfield," he said. "We took the view that we should keep the same forwards that played against England for the Irish match. Against Ireland, the midfield blend was what we hoped for. The players should now have gained confidence."

They will need plenty of that. "France are a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde team. They changed their pattern of play when they went 20-6 down against England. Then they played in a similar style to our game," Dixon said. "France are dangerous when they flow and go. There is no team like them when they are playing with confidence. But we have a core of players who played against France in the last two Five Nations matches and in the World Cup game in Pretoria."

The scenario England will be looking for is a crushing victory over Wales in Cardiff, while the Scots cause an upset in Paris. The first part of that combination, which could bring England the title on points difference, would seem, on the face of it, to look more likely than it was when the Welsh put up a vastly improved performance in losing in France.

The Wales coach, Kevin Bowring, whose side won at Murrayfield but undermined their campaign by surrendering to Ireland in Cardiff after taking an early lead, will wait "until the very last moment" to decide on his team to face England. His is contending with an injury list that meant he began the build-up for the England game without 10 of the side who finished the last game against France.

The Richmond duo of Allan Bateman and Scott Quinnell missed the session because of a clash with club duties, but the rest of the absentees - David Young, Christian Loader, Mark Rowley, Craig Quinnell, Robert Howley, Arwel Thomas, Scott Gibbs and Ieuan Evans - were due to injury. In addition to the walking wounded, the squad props, Andrew Lewis (broken ribs) and Lydon Mustoe (knee operation), also add to Bowring's injury problems.

"I'm a little bit worried about Arwel's knee and we don't really know about Dai Young's ankle at the moment,"Bowring said. "I think we will announce a squad of 23 on Thursday and then give the injured players as long as possible to recover for the game before finalising the side.

"I wouldn't mind waiting until 3pm on the day of the game before deciding, as long as I'm able to work with other squad members in the meantime."

Paul Arnold, the Swansea lock, and Alan Phillips, the Ebbw Vale prop, have been drafted into the squad and Arnold could be in line for a recall to combat the English line-out threat.

SCOTLAND: R Shepherd (Melrose); A Stanger (Hawick), A Tait (Newcastle), G Townsend (Northampton), K Logan (Stirling County); C Chalmers (Melrose), B Redpath (Melrose); T Smith (Watsonians), G Ellis (Currie), M Stewart (Northampton), G Weir (Newcastle), A Reed (Wasps), R Wainwright (Watsonians, capt), P Walton (Newcastle), I Smith (Moseley). Replacements: C Glasgow (Heriot's FP), D Hodge (Watsonians), G Armstrong (Newcastle), D Cronin (Wasps), D Hilton (Bath), S Brotherstone (Melrose).

n Swansea have postponed their Swalec Cup quarter-final against Neath at The Gnoll for a week as Scott Gibbs and Colin Charvis will be away with the Wales squad competing in the Hong Kong Sevens. Welsh Rugby Union rules allow clubs with two or more players absent on international duty to postpone League or Cup matches, which could lead to two more of the quarter-finals on 22 March being disrupted.