Rugby Union: Ready to hoist the tricolour again: When France come to Twickenham on Saturday at the start of rugby's Five Nations' Championship they will be hoping to put behind them a year of internal strife. Richard Williams reports from Paris

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BY THE TIME Pierre Berbizier blew the whistle to end the training session, it was almost too dark to see the silver streak in Didier Camberabero's hair. Over on the next pitch, where the French forwards had been practising line-out routines, the giant figures of Abdelatif Benazzi and Olivier Roumat blended in the murk with their less statuesque fellows to form one smudgy silhouette: the beast with eight backs.

A few minutes later, the French coach re-emerged through the gloom and the dank drizzle in the Parc de Saint-Cloud, high above Paris, on his way to join his players in their bus.

So what was that all about, Pierre? What does does night-vision have to do with playing England? Could it, perhaps, be connected with the Springboks match at Twickenham last November, which finished in the dark?

'Exactly] English conditions] You know, we called the meteo today and asked them to send us this weather . . .'

These days, maybe, you need a sense of humour to run the French rugby team. Without one, Pierre Berbizier probably wouldn't have survived an extraordinary year in which he presided over a couple of France's most ignominious performances.

A stocky south-westerner whose tactical acumen won him a cupboard full of caps at scrum-half between 1981 and '91, Berbizier was in charge of the team when Gregoire Lascube and Vincent Moscato were sent off for stamping and head-butting in the traumatic defeat at the hands of England at Parc des Princes last February. And nine months later it was his selection which first fell to South Africa and then, having apparently avenged that defeat in a second match, crashed in Nantes to an Argentine side which they had beaten twice in South America during the summer. His decision to discard such members of the old guard as the fly- half Camberabero and the centre Philippe Sella, and to appoint the No 8 Marc Cecillon as captain, turned to ashes. Suddenly, French rugby was in chaos, and Berbizier paid the price when he was summarily sacked by the manager, Robert Paparemborde, the former international forward.

But more chaos was to follow. Paparemborde's coup backfired when Bernard Lepasset, the president of the French rugby federation, took a hand. Now it was Paparemborde who was removed from office and Berbizier who was reinstated in time to select and prepare a squad for Saturday's match at Twickenham - a rendezvous significant enough to the home team, in that it opens a season offering the possibility of a third consecutive Grand Slam, but now also of supreme importance to the representatives of le coq sportif as a first step in a programe of rebuilding both performance and pride.

You could see what was in Berbizier's mind last week on the training ground at La Faisanderie, the headquarters of the Stade Francais club, where his squad spent their first day together working out their routines on the pitches located between the frozen swimming pool and the tennis courts on which chic French ladies elegantly practised their winter groundstrokes. Berbizier stood aside as he watched his assistant, Christophe Mombet, begin the day by putting the 21-strong squad

through a series of five-a-side games. Then they formed two teams of 10 men, running at each other and handling the ball in a style that evoked powerful memories of the swarming blues of yesteryear, forwards and backs tossing the ball around with effortless fluency. By now Berbizier was in the centre of the action, commanding and encouraging with his broad, flat accent, the droning voice of a country auctioneer.

Berbizier doesn't have a lot of time in which to prepare his side. Two and a half days last week, one more this week, and then they fly to London: quite a contrast with England's week in Lanzarote. So for the afternoon session he had arranged for a team of players from ACBB, the Boulogne-Billancourt club, to provide realistic opposition.

Realistic? Well, up to a point. Scrums and line-outs were the focus of the first hour, but the twist was that the French team made no attempt to gain possession from the set-pieces. Jean- Francois Tordo, the stonemason from Nice who is Berbizier's new captain, didn't try to hook the ball. Benazzi and

Roumat stood and watched in the line- out as ACBB's jumpers tapped the ball back to their scrum-half. What Berbizier was doing was making them rehearse what would happen when the English won the ball, and preparing them to win it back. These were what the coach would later identify as the phases de conquete: a particular English strength which the French will have to overcome if they are to end a depressing sequence of defeats.

As dusk fell, forwards and backs were separated. The French team's new scrum-half, Aubin Hueber, stayed with the forwards, for one reason: he will take the throw-ins at the line-out, as Berbizier did under his coach, Jacques Fouroux. This is a controversial tactic, particularly since the new laws have made the line-out the prime attacking platform; now the French forwards will have to hold the ball and drive until Hueber - a blond-maned rock 'n' roll angel type from Toulon - is back into position to receive it.

The rest of the backs, under Berbizier's tutelage, were away on an

other part of the field, playing a game that involved four of them trying to cover eight ACBB backs. As the black- clad runners of ACBB became the Guscotts, the Underwoods and the Carlings of Berbizier's imagination, the white shirts of Sella, Jean-Baptiste Lafond, Franck Mesnel and Thierry Lacroix flitted through the twilight with staggering speed.

BACK AT the squad's hotel that evening, Berbizier talked about the task facing his team at Twickenham. It was, he conceded, just about the most difficult rentree imaginable, after a holiday season in which his players had gone a whole month without playing a competitive match, merely following the individual physical training programmes provided for them.

'Today,' he said, 'the English are the reference point for rugby in Europe. After all, they've won the championship twice in a row. They have a team whose virtues include maturity and a great self-confidence. They're particularly strong in the phases de

conquete, and in the melees. They have a good defensive organisation, and they hold their ground well, which puts a lot of pressure on their opponents. They're capable of exploiting the slightest failing, the smallest error. It's a challenge for us, and an exciting one, because it offers us the chance to establish a standard for the season.'

Standards, some would say, are what the French team is badly in need of, and Berbizier needed no encouragement to talk about the aftermath of the incidents both in last year's Five Nations match and the World Cup quarter-final the previous October, another defeat for the French at English hands, during which the coach Daniel Dubroca had harangued and abused the referee to such a degree that he was later forced to apologise and resign.

'It's true that we have problems of discipline and rigour,' Berbizier said. 'Last year's match certainly proved that. But we attacked the problem by punishing the players responsible.' Lescube and Moscato, he pointed out, were both banned from all levels of

rugby for eight months. 'But I must say that the same faults on the other side should be punished in the same way. It must be the same for everybody - the same actions, the same sanctions. In the World Cup match, for example, when Winterbottom kicked Cecillon in the head, we saw no punishment. People said that Winterbottom was finishing his international career at the time. But if he wasn't finishing, he should have been punished. And, of course, Winterbottom plays . . . We must punish provocation, including verbal aggression, since it's in the context of provocation that the violence evolves.'

In the task of concentrating his players' minds on - as he put it - the jeu rather than the anti-jeu, he is looking for a good example to be set by Tordo, the flanker-turned-hooker whose mop of ringlets makes him as immediately identifiable as Jean-Pierre Rives, the most charismatic of all French captains. What are the qualities that persuaded Berbizier of Tordo's suitability for a job requiring both delicacy and strength? 'He's a man who represents

the values of rugby - he has simplicity, humility, enthusiasm and generosity. He communicates well with his team- mates, which is important when you're trying to build a team.' But isn't it possible that he may lack an ability to read the game? 'Well, it's true that he's not a lecteur du jeu, but the game belongs to the whole team, and the half-backs are usually the playmakers. I know of many captains who weren't great readers of the game, but were good leaders of men instead. Tordo is a man who leads by example on the pitch.' But does Berbizier's team have its own lecteur du jeu? 'I hope so. He's hiding himself at the moment. But I hope he emerges at Twickenham.'

IF THE French selectors were all you saw, you'd hardly think that the French rugby administration was a kind of mass cockfight. There they were, the eight of them, sitting behind a long table in the offices of Le Parisien last Friday morning, announcing their final choice for Twickenham. Alongside Laporte and Berbizier, the former national half-back partnership now in a different harness, were a bunch of ex- players including Francis Haget, a giant second-row forward whose handshake could still crush metal, and the front-row pair of Jean-Pierre Garuet and Philippe Dintrans, small, square men full of smiles and laughter but strangely sinister when seen in a leather jacket or a green suit, like a pair of minders for a Marseilles mobster.

As Laporte explained the selection of Lacroix ahead of Mesnel, and of Lafond at full-back in place of the promising young Stephane Ougier, it was impossible not to think of all the characters in the wings: Albert Ferrasse, the former president of the federation, whose long autocracy ended in 1991, shortly after he had been forced to nullify a coup led by Jacques Fouroux, his chosen dauphin; Robert Paparemborde, waiting for Berbizier to fail so that he can return; Jean-Pierre Rives, now pursuing a career as a sculptor, who resigned from the federation committee in sympathy with 'Papa'; Pierre Villepreux, the brilliant peripatetic coach, now with Brives, a strong critic of the preparation for Twickenham; and others, many of whom are contemptuous of Berbizier's volte-face in recalling his experienced players.

In the midst of all this, though, Pierre Berbizier probably represents France's best chance to rebuild a team worthy of its illustrious forebears. 'I hope we can play with style,' he said. 'But now it's necessary to build a solid base, particularly in the phases de conquete. In order to show the French flair, first we must have the ball - above all, against the English, we have to win the ball.'

The effects of the political crisis, he said, meant that the present objectives were short-term. 'The crisis damages the team,' he said. 'They need an atmosphere of confidence and serenity in which to develop. We must find a strong platform on which we can create something for the future. I hope we have the material for that. Now it's up to the players to put it into concrete form on the pitch. That's where the proof will be. To play the English chez eux is always an event. And we have nothing to lose.'

(Photograph omitted)

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