Rugby Union: Tordo proves tower of self-control: Richard Williams on the French captain's triumph in taming temperament

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The Independent Online
'AGINCOURT. Waterloo. Twickenham.' Thus ran Saturday morning's advertisements, the latest hideous effusion from those accursed copywriters who promote hooliganism and hubris on behalf of a sports shoe company (Other efforts: 'Just do it]' and 'Gary Who?'). Well, it wasn't Agincourt or Waterloo, thank goodness. As at the Olympics, where many of their heroes didn't even get to the starting gate, the Nike boys weren't allowed to have their way at Twickenham.

In the end, despite the grotesque crescendo of hype in the last few days, it was just another rugby match, played in difficult conditions to a tight finish. Those who believed the hype, and were disappointed by the event's failure to provide a bigger quota of lurid incident, are advised to attend the promotions of Messrs Duff, Warren or Hearn in future.

Not for a moment, not even when Jean-Francois Tordo's ringlets were brushing the turf as the front rows locked horns, did the match look to be in danger from a collision of temperaments. The new French captain may have been at fault in the award of two of the penalties from which Jonathan Webb scored, but he kept his composure and concentrated on persuading his side to play their way back into contention.

He almost did it, too, and he could not be blamed if he were to lament with particular sincerity the effect of the loss of his two centres, first Philippe Sella and then Thierry Lacroix, in the middle part of the game.

Both had been playing with real dynamism, and the rearrangement which followed their departure seemed to deprive the French backs of a pattern and thrust that had been sowing unease among the home defence.

The measure of Tordo's self-control was evident in a moment during the second half, when one of Ben Clarke's prodigious drives ended in a maul. For an instant, Martin Bayfield's boot seemed to rake down the back of the French No 2 shirt. The referee looked inquiringly at Tordo, who raised a hand and shook his head. Nothing to worry about, his gesture told Mr Fleming. Then, a couple of minutes from time, his side struggling to overcome exhausted bodies and minds, and dredge up the single score that would give them a hugely significant victory, he shot no more than a reproachful glance at the official as a tight decision went against them in a promising position.

At the end, Tordo and Brian Moore - who had been billed as France's nemesis, the fount of all verbal and physical provocation - exchanged shirts and the kind of stares that professional hard men give each other when they want to indicate respect without conceding supremacy.

Two other Frenchmen made powerful impressions. For Philippe Sella, concussed when he put his Depardieuesque features in the way of Rob Andrew's clearance kick in the first half, this may have been a final appearance for his country at Twickenham. The world's most capped centre, recalled to the colours to assist Pierre Berbizier's short-term rebuilding project, deserved a better curtain call than his premature trudge to the tunnel.

Behind him, though, Jean-Baptiste Lafond presented a performance to mock those who predicted that his love of improvisation would make him the team's weak link. In the event, he was simply colossal.

Both full-backs came under the sort of bombardment that made it seem as though a couple of mortar batteries had joined the battle, but while Webb was spilling Didier Camberabero's steeplers in the gusting wind, Lafond just kept turning, waiting, and pouching Andrew's efforts with an air of complete security.

There was only a quarter of an hour to go, with the teams locked one point apart, when Lafond's sudden snaking left-footed strike banged off the crossbar, just an inch or two away from producing the drop goal that could have ended France's five-match losing streak against England. 'If the crossbar had been a little lower,' the French coach said afterwards, that would have suited us.'

Berbizier could afford a little joke. After the chaos and recriminations of the last few months, his team had achieved respectability, if not glory. Other French XVs in other years might have thrown caution to the winds a little earlier, but a show of discipline was paramount and, in any case, this was never the day for extravagant handling combinations.

Berbizier could be satisfied with the speed and alertness that brought Saint-Andre's two tries, with the all-round excellence of Aubin Hueber's first appearance against England, and with the way his jumpers had exploited Martin Johnson's late insertion into the English line-out. France had certainly made a game of it. Not a classic, maybe, but one that the English were relieved to have won, and might easily have lost.