France gamble on Beauxis to recreate the spirit of 1999

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The Independent Online

If the raison d'être of French rugby is the eternal desire to surprise, they should be halfway already to an upset victory over the All Blacks in Cardiff on Saturday. The widespread assumption that the fly-half role would go either to Frédéric Michalak or the fit-again David Skrela was rent asunder yesterday when Bernard Laporte, the coach, plumped instead for Lionel Beauxis.

It is not quite a case of "who he?", because the 21-year-old Beauxis announced himself to an overseas audience with a performance of impressive maturity in Wales last autumn, albeit at club level for Stade Français against Ospreys in the Heineken Cup. Since then he has won nine Test caps, mostly as a replacement, and started France's winning final pool match against Georgia last Sunday.

Nevertheless, the choice of the squat, scuttling fly-half with a howitzer boot, combined with the equally unexpected redeployment of Damien Traille from centre to full-back, is a Caesar's Palace-sized gamble by Laporte.

The respective punch and panache of Sébastien Chabal and Michalak are confined to the bench. Perhaps, after France lost their opening match to Argentina and wound up in a quarter-final against the tournament favourites in Wales, the coach feels nothing else could possibly go wrong.

"Well, it's a fact, we got what we deserved," said Raphaël Ibañez, the captain and hooker, as his team settled into their home away from home in a Cardiff city-centre hotel. "We lost the first match and it was a shock, but we worked hard and the last three games [wins over Namibia, Ireland and Georgia] were OK. "

Ibañez and the former captain with 116 caps, Fabien Pelous are the only two players from the France team that won the famous World Cup semi-final against the All Blacks in 1999 at Twickenham who will start this Saturday. "The conditions are the same in that New Zealand are the favourites for the game," Pelous said. "They are the best team I think, but maybe they can lose one game."

Pieter de Villiers – a substitute in 1999 – starts alongside Ibañez in the front row, while Christophe Dominici, one of the four try-scorers who floored Jonah Lomu and company eight years ago, is this time only a replacement. As a long-standing Laporte favourite, Dominici must be in shock too.

Beauxis, a world under-21 champion, has been third choice for his club, never mind his country, behind Skrela and Argentina's Juan Martin Hernandez. But the need for a strong kicking game is clearly paramount. "When the All Blacks are pushing you back to your 22 and keeping you there, defending and defending, a big boot could be what you want," said France's manager, Jo Maso, another veteran of 1999.

One of the subtler differences when the drama unfolds on Saturday evening will be the All Blacks wearing their silver-grey jerseys, due to France – these days kitted out in all dark blue – having won the relevant toss. Beauxis, who scored 24 points against the rather less accomplished Georgians, said: "New Zealand are not unbeatable. In one game, anything is possible."

France: Traille; Clerc, Marty, Jauzion, Heymans; Beauxis, Elissalde; Milloud, Ibañez (capt), De Villiers, Pelous, Thion, Betsen, Dusautoir, Bonnaire.

Replacements: Szarzewski, Poux, Chabal, Harinordoquy, Michalak, Dominici, Poitrenaud.

New Zealand: MacDonald; Rokocoko, Muliaina, McAlister, Sivivatu; Carter, Kelleher; Woodcock, Oliver, Hayman, Robinson, Williams, Collins, McCaw (capt), So'oialo.

Replacements: Mealamu, Tialata, Jack, Masoe, Leonard, Evans, Toeava.

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