Doubtful wisdom in Laporte's tactical changes

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The Independent Online
Before the international season started, the match we were all looking forward to was England v France. It would, we thought, decide who won the Six Nations' Championship or even the Grand Slam. Then France beat Scotland unconvincingly, and lost to Ireland and Wales. They were among the also-rans of the competition. The undefeated sides were England and Ireland. It was the encounter between these two, at Dublin, which was clearly the match of the season.

Before the international season started, the match we were all looking forward to was England v France. It would, we thought, decide who won the Six Nations' Championship or even the Grand Slam. Then France beat Scotland unconvincingly, and lost to Ireland and Wales. They were among the also-rans of the competition. The undefeated sides were England and Ireland. It was the encounter between these two, at Dublin, which was clearly the match of the season.

Then the foot-and-mouth epidemic and the Irish government took a hand. To begin with, the Lansdowne Road match was put off to 5 or 6 May. Now it has been postponed until the beginning of next season, along with Ireland's two remaining games, against Wales and Scotland.

This is not a satisfactory solution, but it is probably the best available. In 1972 what was then the Five Nations' Championship was not completed for the first time. The reason was the refusal by the Welsh team, supported by the Welsh Rugby Union, to travel to Dublin on account of the threat of violence by the IRA or other terrorist groups. Both the then Irish government and the Irish Rugby Union maintained that the trip would be perfectly safe. But their views did not prevail.

The Irish authorities are taking the opposite view today, for perfectly understandable reasons. The result is that England v France has resumed its former status as the most attractive fixture in the calendar. On the next day the season ends when Italy play Wales in Rome.

It does not require spies in Paris or even a close perusal of the French sporting press to understand that they are coming to Twickenham in a despondent mood. The coach, Bernard Laporte, is not the popular favourite.

Not that he ever was, exactly. He used to be a dour, uninspired but effective scrum-half with Bègles-Bordeaux in the days when they won the French Cup and possessed a notably disobliging front row who protected their vulnerable parts with cricket boxes.

He seems to be a dour and uninspired coach too but, judged by results, he has not so far been very effective ­ even though we should never forget that it was not so long ago when Laporte's France beat New Zealand in Marseilles after they had been given no chance beforehand.

Laporte sees it as his historic function to propel France into the 21st century by increasing the training and cutting down on the Armagnac and untipped Gauloises after lunch. The last French coach to adopt more-or-less this approach was Jacques Fouroux, a former scrum-half likewise, though he had played many times for France, as Laporte never has.

Fouroux, on account of his lack of height and his pouter-pigeon manner, was known both as "the little corporal'' and as "the little general''. His greatest technical innovation was to have the scrum-half doing the throwing into the line-out rather than the hooker or the wing (with whom, as a thrower-in, the French persisted for longer than anyone else). His obsessive idea was that France should field a pack capable of meeting the forwards of the southern hemisphere, in particular New Zealand, on physically equal terms.

Like Laporte, he was accused of putting perspiration before inspiration. Of the present lot of forwards, Pieter de Villiers (a South African qualified for France) is probably the most technically accomplished in the competition. On the other side, Sylvain Marconnet is not the inspirational forward that the injured Christian Califano is, but he is marginally more skilled. I would say that France have a distinct advantage in the front row, the more so because of the enforced absence of Phil Vickery from the England side.

Elsewhere in the French pack matters are not so encouraging. Laporte seems to invite his troubles. Even a few years ago Abdel Benazzi would have been the first name to be pencilled in when a European pack were being chosen ­ at No 8 or No 6, the latter his best position. And yet, we are told, Laporte intends to give Benazzi a run in the second row. Similarly, he is reported to be thinking of transferring the captain, Fabien Pelous, from lock to No 8. At this stage of the season, is this course all together wise? Is it wise, either, to drop Christophe Lamaison in favour of Gérald Merceron, who is a good goal-kicker but no better than Lamaison? Lamaison is clearly Merceron's superior as a constructive outside-half. Thomas Lombard and Stéphane Glas will, if chosen, be the third combination to be tried at centre, which is reasonable enough in view of France's previous midfield failures. I still look forward to some productive runs from Christophe Dominici and Philippe Bernat-Salles. But my French acquaintances tell me that they will all be lucky to hold England to a 30 points difference.

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