Rugby World Cup: All's flair in Gallic war tactics

THE MAIN CONTENDERS England prepared for unlikely gamble, France primed to gambol while Australia calculate odds and Ireland play wild card
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The Independent Online
WHAT TO make of them. This time last year, the Tricolores had won back-to-back Grand Slams for the first time in their history and looked every inch the future world champions. Thomas Castaignede and Olivier Magne were playing the rugby of the Gods, Christian Califano and Franck Tournaire were the most formidable prop partnership in the game, and the whole of France knelt at the feet of Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux, the sexiest think tank outside of the Sorbonne.

There is nothing sexy, or even vaguely alluring, about the French team at the moment. They are up the Loire without a courgette for a paddle and have been since the Australians rumbled them in Paris before Christmas. Their squad for this tournament is not so much surprising as extraordinary: Arthur Gomes, Thomas Lombard, Pascal Giordani, Franck Comba, David Aucagne, Sylvain Marconnet, Thierry Cleda, Richard Castel and Marc Raynaud were all given a run in full Tests last season, yet all have been discarded, seemingly without a second thought. To say the very least, this is an interesting time to throw out the baby with the bath water.

On paper, there is still a touch of the bee's knees about the remains. Christophe Lamaison and Richard Dourthe are back on board in midfield, the magnificent Abdel Benazzi has sneaked his way in amongst the locks after two long years in the cold and, assuming both are in one piece, the Lievremont brothers, Marc and Thomas, add a dangerous dimension to the back row. But many worldly-wise Frenchmen believe Skrela and Villepreux are well off the pace with their selection.

Take Philippe Saint-Andre, for example. The former French wing and captain, now coaching at Gloucester, is deeply disconcerted and not a little depressed at the shape of the Tricolore party. "Too many creatives," he said, in his inimitable English, the other week. "In a World Cup, you need warriors. We have no warriors. We have people who can play pretty rugby in all areas of the field, but pretty rugby gets you only so far."

Saint-Andre is particularly worried about the scrum-half position in the absence of the fiercely combative Philippe Carbonneau. "If Carbonneau is injured, why not pick the next most experienced player, Fabien Galthie?" he asked. "At least he knows a few things." More, it seems, than the flyweight Stephane Castaignede of Mont-de-Marsan or the bantamweight Pierre Mignoni of Toulon.

And yet. Three semi-reasonable Pool C performances in the familiar surroundings of Beziers, Bordeaux and Toulouse will earn the French an automatic quarter- final place in Dublin, the one Five Nations venue at which they managed a victory last season. A sprinkling of savoir-faire and a smidgen of esprit de corps at Lansdowne Road and, hey presto, it's last four time. And when the Tricolores reach that elevated plane, anything can happen and probably will. No-one but a fool, or perhaps a ludicrously optimistic English patriot, would dismiss them from the equation.

Le Mondial means everything and a bit more to Raphael Ibanez, the 26- year-old captain from Perpignan, not simply because he would love to wrap his hands around the Webb Ellis Cup but because he feels French rugby is in danger of losing its identity. "We are recruiting more and more foreigners into our domestic championship and the gap between the national team and the next generation is widening," he said in a recent interview.

"We are in a delicate position in France and we have to use this tournament to create a new momentum. We cannot win the tournament; we must go in with very measured ambitions. It would be indecent to think otherwise."

Of course, the French have a reputation for succumbing to the odd indecent thought.

FRANCE

Coaches: Jean-Claude Skrela, Pierre Villepreux

Captain: Raphael Ibanez

World Cup record: 1987 - Runners-up; 1991 - Quarter-finalists; 1995 - 3rd

How they qualified: Third place in 1995 tournament

Registered adult players: 93,144

Key player

THOMAS CASTAIGNeDE

(Outside-half)

The romance of French rugby in one tiny, fragile frame. On his day - and he has many of them - Castaignede is far and away the most inventive stand-off in the game, all speed and swagger and je ne sais quoi. He will benefit from having the unforgiving Richard Dourthe alongside him in midfield, but is there a scrum-half on the same wavelength?

SQUAD

Emile Ntamack (Toulouse)

Christophe Dominici (Stade Francais)

Philippe Bernat-Salles (Biarritz)

Xavier Garbajosa (Toulouse)

Jimmy Marlu (Montferrand)

Stephane Glas (Bourgoin)

Richard Dourthe (Stade Francais)

Christophe Lamaison (Brive)

Cedric Desbrosse (Toulouse)

Thomas Castaignede (Castres)

Ugo Mola (Castres)

Pierre Mignoni (Toulon)

Stephane Castaignede (Mont-de-Marsan)

Christian Califano (Toulouse)

Franck Tournaire (Toulouse)

Cedric Soulette (Toulouse)

Pieter de Villiers (Stade Francais)

Raphael Ibanez (Perpignan, capt)

Marc Dal Maso (Colomiers)

Fabien Pelous (Toulouse)

Olivier Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux)

Abdel Benazzi (Agen)

David Auradou (Stade Francais)

Olivier Magne (Montferrand)

Marc Lievremont (Stade Francais)

Lionel Mallier (Brive)

Arnaud Costes (Montferrand)

Olivier Sarramea (Castres)

Thomas Lievremont (Perpignan)

Christophe Juillet (Stade Francais)

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