Rugby Union: Wounded French seek redemption

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The Independent Online
APRIL IN Paris. Even in rugby terms those three words are redolent of a spring in the step and a certain lightness of being. But all this week at Clairefontaine, despite the clement conditions in this leafy pastoral haven 40 miles from the capital, faces in the French camp have been drawn and, in an atmosphere of palpable tension there has been little of the light-hearted frivolity which normally accompanies their preparation.

With only one win to their credit (a mediocre one-point victory over Ireland in Dublin) the French, after winning two successive Grand Slams, are looking down the barrel of their worst Championship performance in many years.

Weakened by an unprecedented series of injuries (at least seven first- choice players are unavailable) and singularly impressed by the quality and mobility of the resurgent Scots, the Tricolores have their backs to the wall. They appear to have stagnated while all their opponents have gone forward over the past 12 months.

Another loss on Saturday would have catastrophic and long-reaching results for this team and their coaches, Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux. "There are no two ways of saying this," insisted the normally laid-back manager, Jo Maso. "But victory is imperative. This game is all about redemption and revenge. We expect the players to prove that they deserve the confidence we have placed in them. Otherwise we will just have to go on without them."

In the absence of Fabien Pelous, injured with his club on the weekend, the French have called in Thierry Cleda who, at 6ft 3in and 15st 10lb, is no doubt the smallest second row in international rugby. However his mobility about the field, coupled with his high work-rate, mean he is expected to play a key role in the dynamic phases. Added to this, the choice of two open-side flankers in Richard Castel and the 28-year-old Christian Labit of Toulouse, who wins his first cap today, are intended to give the French a greater presence in support. Preparations were disrupted even more when Thomas Lievremont, who has been diagnosed with lumbago, was replaced by Christophe Juillet of Stade Francais.

Scotland, on the other hand, come to the Stade de France virtually as favourites. As they showed against Ireland three weeks ago, their capacity to breach the opposition defence, to keep the ball in hand and to attack from all parts of the field makes them particularly dangerous. Gregor Townsend, playing alongside the unassuming but flawless New Zealander John Leslie, has blossomed into a world-class attacking stand-off. His flair, added to the experience of Leslie, Alan Tait and Gary Armstrong and the finishing skills of Kenny Logan and Cameron Murray mean that for once, Scotland have the edge over France behind the scrum.

Unfortunately for Scotland the injuries to Eric Peters and Tom Smith will be sorely felt in the pack. This said, the second-rowers Stuart Grimes and Scott Murray are capable of dominating at line-out, while the front row of Dave Hilton, Gordon Bulloch and Paul Burnell have a rare opportunity of taking on a French scrum which has struggled to find form this year.

This, however, is not the first time Scotland have come to Paris buoyed by a wave of optimism, only to be overcome by the intensity and the passion of the French and their public. They have only won once here in the last 30 years and Jim Telfer, who says this is his last Championship game as coach, has seen it all before. "There is no way we will be taking the French lightly. They may not be the impressive machine they have been in the past. But they still have some superb players."

Ian Borthwick writes for L'Equipe

FRANCE v SCOTLAND

at Stade de France

E Ntamack (Toulouse) 15 G Metcalfe (Glasgow Cal)

X Garbajosa (Toulouse) 14 C Mather (Edinburgh R'vers)

P Giordani (Dax) 13 A Tait (Edinburgh R'vers)

F Comba (Stade Francais) 12 J Leslie (Sanix)

C Dominici (Stade Francais) 11 K Logan (Wasps)

T Castaignede (Castres) 10 G Townsend (Brive)

P Carbonneau (Brive) 9 G Armstrong (Newcastle, capt)

C Califano (Toulouse) 1 D Hilton (Bath)

R Ibanez (Perpignan, capt) 2 G Bulloch (Glasgow Cal)

F Tournaire (Toluouse) 3 P Burnell (London Scottish)

T Cleda (Pau) 4 S Murray (Bedford)

O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux) 5 S Grimes (Glasgow Cal)

C Labit (Toulouse) 6 B Pountey (Northampton)

R Castel (Beziers) 7 M Leslie (Glasgow Cal)

C Juillet (Stade Francais) 8 S Reid (Leeds)

Referee: C Thomas (Wales) Kick-off: 2.15 (BBC1)

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