Rugby Union: Villepreux must not be a French fall guy

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The Independent Online
WE ALL agree it has been a marvellous Five Nations season, the best for years. It will not, I hope, be thought grudging if I say its fascination derived less from the quality of the rugby than from the capricious nature of the scorelines and the reversals of form in two of the countries involved. I refer, of course, to Scotland and France.

Throughout the season, from the moment they took the field in the Dublin rain, the French looked several courses short of the full menu at lunch. Many observers, some of them French themselves, have blamed their performance on a lack of concentration on the task in hand. They were, according to this explanation or excuse, looking forward to the World Cup instead.

Others have blamed one of their coaches, Pierre Villepreux. The French are fond of sending supposed enemies of the people to the guillotine - though in this respect their recent rugby record is no worse than that of England or Wales.

I hope Villepreux does not go the same way as Geoff Cooke or Jack Rowell, Alan Davies or Kevin Bowring: partly because he is one of the most engaging characters in world rugby, partly because France played in a slow, clumsy, above all joyless way which was contrary to everything he has ever believed in.

My own view is that France's disappointing season derived largely from straight errors in selection. For these the other members of the committee of public safety, Jean-Claude Skrela and Jo Maso, must take their share of responsibility.

For instance, Emile Ntamack is a world-class wing. That does not make him a world class or even a competent international full-back.

True, the days are long gone when a wing was considered a try-scoring luxury whose only other function was to throw the ball, usually none too accurately, into the line-out, a pattern with which the French, by the way, persisted for longer than any other nation. Wings and full-backs can sometimes now be exchanged, as outside halves and full-backs always could be and indeed still are.

Ntamack, however, always appeared liable to spill the high ball. It would have been better to restore him to his proper position and play Jean-Luc Sadourny at full-back. People said he was injured. He was not so injured as to be unable to play for Colomiers against Ulster in the final of the European Cup. When the international season itself was underway, he turned out for France A. The long-term injuries to Christophe Lamaison and Stephane Glas not withstanding, I find it difficult to believe the French could not have come up with two better centres than the ones who took the field on their behalf.

Superficially Jim Telfer, the Scottish coach, could not be more different from Villepreux: a stern Presbyterian to Villepreux's Renaissance prince. Yet it was Scotland rather than France who played the more jewelled and more artistic rugby.

Undoubtedly luck had some part in this. If the half-backs, Bryan Redpath and Duncan Hodge, had not been injured at the start of the season, Telfer would have had them at scrum-half and outside half respectively, Gregor Townsend at outside centre, and both Gary Armstrong and Alan Tait, two the best players in the competition, on the substitutes' bench. All these would not have been able to prosper if Stuart Grimes and Scott Murray had not been outstanding in the second row, and Eric Peters and Martin Leslie in the back row. If Bath mess Peters about as they do, one week at No 6, another at No 7 and another on the bench, I am not altogether surprised they are not the force they used to be.

Telfer, by contrast, used the massive Peter Walton intelligently at No 6 as a 60-minute strength-sapper. When up to six substitutes were allowed in internationals for tactical reasons as well as for injuries, I said this could change the game. So it has proved - up to a point.

I am glad Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, took my advice and fielded an entire reserve front row against England; even gladder that he has got on terms with the Quinnell brothers. And Scott Gibbs is now one of the acknowledged Celtic saints, along with Saints Barry, Bleddyn, Gareth, Gerald and JPR.

It might so easily have ended differently. If Thomas Castaignede had kicked his conversion, and Neil Jenkins missed his, Wales and not France might have finished at the bottom of the Five Nations' table.

This, along with the results of the Ireland-France and England-Scotland games, is what I mean by the capriciousness of the scorelines. As it is, all my fellow countrymen have to do to complete their present and doubtless temporary happiness is get the new stadium ready in time for the World Cup.

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