RUGBY UNION : Merle attacks `English hysteria'

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The Independent Online
The head-butt which felled Ricky Evans - who then broke both bones in his left calf as he hit the ground - during the France-Wales game yesterday earned Olivier Merle a slap on the wrist. But as the gigantic lock is protesting his innocence, he is aggrieved even with this. "The injury to Evans is nothing to do with me," Merle said last night.

So while Vernon Pugh, the Welsh Rugby Union chairman, was expressing curiosity as to the reasons why a reprimand was preferred to a suspension, Merle, 29, was castigating the "English" press for getting the whole thing up as a psychological ploy before France play England on Saturday week.

Bernard Lapasset, the French rugby federation president, said that Merle's selection in the team for Twickenham to be named today was a matter for the selectors. "But I would tell him to prepare himself for the match," Lapasset went on. "We must not fallinto the trap of losing against England before playing them. Let us just all keep calm and I urge Merle to do the same and not to say anything rash."

This was sound advice that Merle, conscious no doubt that France have lost seven times in succession to England, instantly ignored. The war of words Lapasset dreads has already begun. "They will have to find something other than newspaper hacks to prepare their team," Merle said. "The Five Nations' Championship is not there in order to perpetuate the Hundred Years' War.

"As for the `blacksmith's brute', which I have been called, no doubt the 15 players are afraid that they will melt completely in front of the French team. The English continue to utilise this press in order to wind things up. Thankfully, I know that the French press is intelligent."

The idea of a conspiracy between the London newspapers and the England team, though absurd, is widely held among the French players. "The English have grown accustomed to putting the pressure on us before the games in the Five Nations and this time they have found something else," Merle said.

At 20st and 6ft 6in, he would make most people "melt", perhaps even the French federation disciplinary committee, which has accepted that his action was "not dangerous but borderline" and "not reprehensible" despite the video evidence. Lapasset said Evans had never lost consciousness; the Welsh said he had been out cold.

The clarity of the video is one thing; the "English" reaction quite another which the French see as confirmation that they are the victims of double standards. "France is the only country which shows an example in matters of discipline," was the acerbic response of Guy Laporte, the team manager, last night.

"Nobody can lecture us about it."