Berbizier ends slanging match to plot French downfall

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The Independent Online

Much as we would prefer to be held spellbound by the exploits of France's Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and his opposite number, the resolutely hirsute Kiwi-Italian Paul Griffen, at scrum-half this afternoon, it is impossible to ignore the sub-plot here between two No 9s of a bygone era. Bernard Laporte and Pierre Berbizier are the coaches of France and Italy respectively and as such they share many things except, it seems, a mutual respect.

Berbizier, a son of St Gaulens near Toulouse, captained and coached France in the 1980s and 1990s; indeed he and the late Jacques Fouroux were named by Laporte this week as major influences on him taking up the tracksuit and clipboard in the first place. But Laporte's ardour can only have cooled since he took charge of Les Bleus in late 1999, unless he has been superhumanly deaf to the volleys of criticism aimed at him from Berbizier's quarter.

"This team was in a cul-de-sac before and now it's hit the wall at the end of the cul-de-sac," Berbizier said after France's 45-6 mauling by the All Blacks last season. "I don't see any game plan." More in the same vein had greeted the loss to England in the 2003 World Cup semi-final. Berbizier was operating principally then in the field of PR and the media; having left Narbonne in 2000 he was subsequently restricted to coaching French regional teams. Today is his chance to test Laporte's methods in a more material fashion.

"If we say hello, I hope he [Laporte] doesn't call me the things he called the crowd at France's last match," Berbizier quipped yesterday in reference to Laporte's "bourgeois shits" outburst after the 43-31 defeat of Ireland a fortnight ago. Berbizier, 47, won one Championship and lost a World Cup semi-final in four seasons as France coach from 1992 to 1995. Laporte can top that with two Grand Slams, but has what looks increasingly like a millstone around his neck preparing for his country to host next year's World Cup.

Aghast at his team spending a whopping 33 minutes in their own half after the interval against the Irish, Laporte makes three changes to the starting XV. David Marty and Cédric Heymans drop from the back division to the bench, and the 32-year-old Thomas Lièvremont comes in at No8 for Julien Bonnaire. Marty's replacement in the centre is Damien Traille, and Christophe Dominici reverts to the wing. Traille offers the security blanket of a second kicker to support Frédéric Michalak, which in turn allows the return of Saracens' Thomas Castaignède at full-back. Mark Mapletoft, the former Gloucester fly-half, has worked with France's kickers this week, on Castaignède's recommendation.

"Italy have grown in confidence," said Castaignède, whose last Championship match was in 2003. "Nobody expects to put 60 points on them any more. The only objective is to win."

The near-pensionable French pack is doubly intriguing because if there is one thing Italy possess, it is boundless energy at scrum and breakdown. Berbizier makes his first Six Nations change after defeats away to Ireland and at home to England by drafting in the Bourgoin lock Carlos del Fava to replace the injured Santiago Dellape in the second row.

Italy have had French coaches in the past but never before has one attempted to storm the Stade de France in the Six Nations. "We are all Latins but we have to curb the passion," Italy's captain, Marco Bortolami, said. We will see.

Stade de France teams


15 T Castaignède (Saracens)

14 A Rougerie (Clermont)

13 F Fritz (Toulouse)

12 D Traille (Biarritz)

11 C Dominici (S Français)

10 F Michalak (Toulouse)

9 J-B Elissalde (Toulouse)

1 O Milloud (Bourgoin)

2 R Ibanez (Wasps)

3 P de Villiers (S Français)

4 F Pelous (Toulouse, capt)

5 J Thion (Biarritz)

6 Y Nyanga (Toulouse)

7 O Magne (London Irish)

8 T Lièvremont (Biarritz)

Replacements: S Bruno (Sale Sharks); S Marconnet (Stade Français), L Nallet (Castres), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin), D Yachvili (Biarritz), D Marty (Perpignan), C Heymans (Toulouse).


15 C Stoica (Montpellier)

14 P Canavosio (Calvisano)

13 G Canale (Clermont Auv)

12 Mi Bergamasco (Stade F)

11 L Nitoglia (Calvisano)

10 R Pez (Perpignan)

9 P Griffen (Calvisano)

1 S Perugini (Calvisano)

2 F Ongaro (Treviso)

3 C Nieto (Viadana)

4 C del Fava (Bourgoin)

5 M Bortolami (Narbonne, c)

6 J Sole (Viadana)

7 Ma Bergamasco (Stade F)

8 S Parisse (Stade Français)

Replacements: C Festuccia (GrAN Parma), A lo Cicero (L'Aquila), M Castrogiovanni), V Bernabo, A Zanni (all Calvisano), S Picone (Treviso), E Galon (Overmach Parma).

Referee: T Spreadbury (England)

Kick-off: Today 2pm (BBC1)