Rugby Union: Revamped French spell danger

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The Independent Online
PIERRE VILLEPREUX was at his nonchalant best yesterday, effectively writing off the chances of a fifth successive French victory over England with a philosophical shrug of the shoulders and a cucumber-cool dash of Parisian sang-froid. "This game is important for our opponents because they still have their Grand Slam ambitions, but for France the result is not a major concern," he pronounced, confirming the English view that no Tricolore full-back, not even a middle-aged one, can ever be trusted.

If Villepreux is to be taken at his word, the light went out on his country's Five Nations campaign a fortnight ago when Thomas Castaignede slid an injury-time penalty across the face of the Stade de France posts and presented Wales with a first victory on the far side of the channel since 1975. "All that is important this year is the World Cup," said the coach as he and his colleague, Jean-Claude Skrela, announced their much-changed side for Saturday's tete-a-tete at Twickenham. "It will be an interesting game, this one; it will show us where we stand and what we can achieve against a strong England team. But we cannot win the Slam and anyway, we are weakened by injury."

So weakened that they can leave Christian Califano, considered this time last year to be the best prop in world rugby, on the bench, along with the Stade Francais wing, Christophe Dominici. This new French team may lack familiarity, but it reeks of danger. As Clive Woodward, the England coach, said on Tuesday: "I'm convinced we have a team capable of winning this game, but that's about all I'm convinced of. The French will not lack for motivation."

Califano may feel a trifle hard done by, given that he was asked to prop on both sides against Wales, but the hugely accomplished Toulouse forward has yet to recapture the form he showed before succumbing to serious injury last summer. It is no particular surprise that the Tricolore selectors prefer Stade Francais' loose-head specialist Sylvain Marconnet for this one. According to Ben Evans, the Welshman who locked horns with both men in Paris two weekends ago, Marconnet was by far the more formidable proposition.

As expected, Xavier Garbajosa replaces an out-of-sorts Philippe Bernat- Salles on the right wing; however, the more significant changes stem from injuries to two of the most influential players in the French squad, Richard Dourthe and Olivier Magne. Pascal Giordani, a 24-year-old centre from Dax, is granted a debut at outside centre because Dourthe dislocated his right shoulder in a wholly avoidable off-the-ball collision with his Welsh opposite number, Mark Taylor. Meanwhile, Richard Castel takes over Magne's role on the open-side flank, with Thomas Lievremont moving from No 8 to blind side. The reshuffle gives Christophe Juillet a first Five Nations start in the middle of the back row.

That experimental loose forward combination will be central to the French effort, for Villepreux considers the English back row to be world-class. Castel is a bruising operator in the Philippe Benetton mould, while both Lievremont and Juillet are intelligent and inspirational. Juillet's display for France A in Dublin last month was right out of the top drawer and he deserves his place in the Five Nations spotlight.

By contrast, the Scots have taken a conservative selectorial approach to this weekend's Celtic squabble with Ireland at Murrayfield, fielding the side that pushed England unexpectedly close in the recent Calcutta Cup match. Gary Armstrong, the Newcastle scrum-half and national captain, has recovered from the elbow injury that cost him a 44th cap against Italy a fortnight ago and returns for Edinburgh Reivers' Iain Fairley, who drops to the bench.

It remains to be seen whether Jim Telfer, the Scottish coach, will live to regret his decision not to reinforce his front row by introducing the tight-head bulk of Matthew Proudfoot ahead of Paul Burnell's highly developed survival instincts; after all, the Irish front row is still considered to be the most potent in Europe, despite failing to dominate the English threesome. Still, Tom Smith, an automatic choice as Scotland's loose- head, has no inferiority complex about Keith Wood, Paul Wallace and company.

"The Irish tight forwards have been talked up a good deal during this tournament, but the comments fire us up because we know that when we play to our maximum potential, we're not so bad ourselves," Smith said yesterday. "We will have to work hard and improve on our game against Italy, but if we are aggressive and match the Irish up front, we can provide a winning platform.

FRANCE (v England, Twickenham, Saturday): E Ntamack (Toulouse); X Garbajosa (Toulouse), P Giordani (Dax), F Comba (Stade Francais), T Lombard (Stade Francais); T Castaignede (Castres), P Carbonneau (Brive); T Lievremont (Perpignan), C Juillet (Stade Francais), R Castel (Beziers); F Pelous (Toulouse), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux); F Tournaire (Toulouse), R Ibanez (Perpignan), S Marconnet (Stade Francais). Replacements: C Laussucq (Stade Francais), D Aucagne (Pau), C Dominici (Stade Francais), M Raynaud (Narbonne), D Auradou (Stade Francais), C Califano (Stade Toulousain), M De Rougemont (Begles-Bordeaux).

SCOTLAND (v Ireland, Murrayfield, Saturday): G Metcalfe (Glasgow Caledonians); C Murray (Edinburgh Reivers), A Tait (Edinburgh Reivers), J Leslie (Glasgow Caledonians), K Logan (Wasps); G Townsend (Brive), G Armstrong (Newcastle, capt); T Smith (Glasgow Caledonians), G Bulloch (Glasgow Caledonians), P Burnell (London Scottish), S Murray (Bedford), S Grimes (Glasgow Caledonian), P Walton (Newcastle), M Leslie (Edinburgh Reivers), E Peters (Bath). Replacements: S Longstaff (Glasgow Caledonians), C Chalmers (Edinburgh Reivers), I Fairley (Edinburgh Reivers), B Pountney (Northampton), A Reed (Wasps), D Hilton (Bath), S Brotherstone (Edinburgh Reivers).