Rugby Union: Scots bar Benazzi's path to Grand Slam history

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The Independent Online
Never before has a French Grand Slam coronation taken place on home soil. History beckons, and Parisian pomp and circumstance awaits the 14 Frenchmen who have the honour, and the burden, of carrying the Tricolore into the Parc des Princes' final Five Nations battle this afternoon.

It is one of the ironies which surround the unexpected denouement to this season's championship that the man who will lead the French XV on their historic mission once played against them. Not that Christian Carrere, the JPs Bastiat and Rives, or Daniel Dubroca - captains of the four French sides to have clinched Grand Slams on foreign shores - would begrudge Abdelatif Benazzi the unique place he stands to occupy in the Pantheon of Gallic, or in his case adopted Gallic, greats.

The French rugby fraternity was too busy making sure it was not counting its metaphorical cockerels yesterday to dwell on the fact that the skipper of Les Bleus happened to be born in Morocco and baptised at the international altar for the land of his Arabic fathers. Despite the flair which frazzled les rosbifs at Twickenham a fortnight ago, there was a marked French reluctance to assume that les haggis will be easy meat.

Jean-Claude Skrela captured the mood of caution, the Grand Slam back row boy of 1977 and coach to the class of '97 insisting: "We have won nothing yet. It would be an error to think we have a Grand Slam in our pocket. The Scots will come to the Parc with the same team spirit as we will have, and they come here with nothing to lose.

"Beating England was only a semi-final victory for us. We still have to play the final. We still have to win it." And winning is something France have not achieved in their last two Five Nations fixtures against Scotland.

The fact that just four members of the team beaten at Murrayfield last year will line up today is a fair measure of the depth of France's casualty list this season and the depth of the talent Skrela and his assistant, Pierre Villepreux, have unearthed.

Not only that, Villepreux, one of the finest free-spirit full-backs of his day, has sharpened a near novice back-line close to cutting-edge perfection. "To be in this position... c'est formidable," he said yesterday. "We did not expect it."

It is just as well for Scotland that in Alan Tait they have a midfield defensive marshal in whom the sight of the razor-sharp Christophe Lamaison will strike no fear. "I've played against the Mal Meningas of this world," Tait observed, reflecting on his experience as a rugby league World Cup finalist. "They were frightening guys, but once you get on the field that fear goes."

The presence of sports psychologist Richard Cox among the entourage at Scotland's Versailles training session yesterday suggests the fear factor may be marginalised in the last championship match to be played in the cauldron of Parc des Princes; an autumn Test against the Springboks will be France's final engagement there before the move to the new Stade de France next year.

A Grand Slam would be a perfect parting gift. France's most recent dates back a decade, to the 1987 team against whom Tait made his debut in the drawn World Cup match in Christchurch that summer. "I'll never forget the try Serge Blanco scored from a tapped penalty," the Newcastle centre mused yesterday. "He was under the sticks before we even realised he had run the ball."

The veteran behind the Scottish pack would be ideally placed to compare the Gallic Grand Slammers of 1987 and 1997, though if Scotland manage to reproduce the dynamism which steamrollered the admittedly sorry Irish two weeks ago, the expected coronation party may yet be in for an almighty pooping.

The Scots have famously tripped France at the final hurdle before, claiming the grand prize for themselves courtesy of Jim Calder's try and the booming boot of Peter Dods at Murrayfield in 1984. Kilted souls seeking omens in Paris this morning may be further encouraged by discovering recollections of an even more painful last-ditch French disappointment within the pages of Midi Olympique, France's rugby weekly: when the team led by the remarkable flanker-cum-drop-kicker Jean Prat were thwarted by Wales at Stade Colombes in 1955.

Today Benazzi and his boys become only the second French XV to challenge for a "Grand Chelem" on the Calais side of the Channel. Crowning glory beckons in the park of the French princes.


at Parc des Princes, Paris

J-L Sadourny Colomiers 15 R Shepherd Melrose

L Leflammand Bourgoin 14 T Stanger Hawick

C Lamaison Brive 13 A Tait Newcastle

S Glas Bourgoin 12 G Townsend Northampton

D Venditti Brive 11 K Logan Wasps

D Aucagne Pau 10 C Chalmers Melrose

G Accoceberry Begles-Bordeaux 9 B Redpath Melrose

D Casadei Brive 1 T Smith Watsonians

M Dal Maso Agen 2 G Ellis Currie

F Tournaire Narbonne 3 M Stewart Northampton

O Merle Montferrand 4 G Weir Newcastle

H Miorin Toulouse 5 A Reed Wasps

A Benazzi Agen, capt 6 R Wainwright Watsonians, capt

F Pelous Dax 8 P Walton Newcastle

O Magne Dax 7 I Smith Moseley

Referee: E Morrison (England). Kick-off: 2.0 (BBC 1 from 1.55, 2.45 BBC 2).

Replacements: 16 U Mola (Dax), 17 P Bondoury (Narbonne), 18 P Carbonneau (Brive), 19 R Castel (Beziers), 20 J-L Jordana (Toulouse), 21 M de Rougemont (Toulon).

Replacements: 16 C Glasgow (Heriot's FP), 17 D Hodge (Watsonians), 18 G Armstrong (Newcastle), 19 D Cronin (Wasps), 20 P Wright (Melrose), 21 S Brotherstone (Melrose).