Rugby Union: Ntamack assumes the Blanco role

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The Independent Online
EMILE NTAMACK has been labouring under the weight of the "new Serge Blanco" tag ever since he made his international debut against Wales five years ago.

When he emerges into the Lansdowne Road bearpit to face Ireland in this Saturday's opening match of the Five Nations' Championship, the most elegant attacking runner in French rugby will finally fulfill the expectations of his countrymen by donning the No 15 shirt once graced by the favourite son of Biarritz.

Ntamack's move from wing to full-back mirrors Blanco's positional shift of the early 1980s and Jean-Claude Skrela, the national coach, believes it will be the making of his new-look back division. Two threequarters, Franck Comba and Thomas Lombard, are new to Five Nations' rugby - they replace Stephane Glas and Christophe Dominici, who performed so brilliantly in last season's Grand Slam campaign - and their inexperience swung the vote towards Ntamack.

Arthur Gomes, the versatile Stade Francais regular who performed perfectly adequately at full-back in recent Tests, would have won a reprieve had Ntamack not recovered so quickly from the knee injury he suffered during last weekend's victory over Italy in Genoa. As it is, Gomes finds himself beaten on two fronts: firstly by Ntamack and also by Philippe Bernat-Salles, who retains his place on the right wing.

Up front, the French remain loyal to the same pack that gave the forwards of the home unions what might accurately be described as a jolly good seeing-to during last year's competition. Christian Califano, injured for the first half of the season after undergoing surgery last summer, reclaims the loose-head position from Sylvain Marconnet and resumes his front-row partnership with Franck Tournaire and the captain, Raphael Ibanez. In the back row, the Lievremont brothers, Marc and Thomas, hold off the challenge of Philippe Benetton and play at blind-side flank and No 8 respectively.

"We wanted to strike a balance between speed and power," Jo Maso, the team manager, pronounced. "We intend to expand and vary our game, but we know that the Irish will present a formidable challenge." To that end, Maso and his colleagues have packed their bench with a rough, tough breed of players: Benetton, Marc Dal Maso and Thierry Cleda are not exactly soft touches.

As expected, Thomas Castaignede is back after a few months alongside Califano on the casualty slab. The extravagantly gifted outside-half from Castres was devastating last season, but a shoulder rebuild left his appearance in this tournament in the lap of the gods. Fortunately for the Tricolores, he came through a 50-minute gallop in Genoa with both his new shoulder and his old bag of tricks intact.

Scotland, who play Wales at Murrayfield on Saturday, are anything but intact. The withdrawal of their captain, Bryan Redpath, with an ankle injury suffered while playing for Edinburgh Reivers, was only the latest in a long line of setbacks for Jim Telfer, the coach, who now intends to name a starting XV this afternoon. Jamie Mayer, Matthew Proudfoot and Gordon Simpson, all certainties, will also be missing owing to a variety of physical conditions.

FRANCE TEAM (v Ireland, Lansdowne Road, Dublin, Saturday): E Ntamack; P Bernat-Salles, R Dourthe, F Comba, T Lombard; T Castaignede, P Carbonneau; O Magne, T Lievremont, M Lievremont, F Pelous, O Brouzet, F Tournaire, R Ibanez (capt), C Califano. Replacements: C Laussucq, A Gomes, D Aucagne, P Benetton, T Cleda, S Marconnet, M Dal Maso.