France insist World Cup revenge is not on their menu

Bernard Laporte's men insist that victory is their only target tomorrow. By Will Bland in Paris
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The Independent Online

If it was Clive Woodward's intention to get under the skin of the French before tomorrow's Six Nations showdown at the Stade de France, the England coach has succeeded in spectacular fashion.

If it was Clive Woodward's intention to get under the skin of the French before tomorrow's Six Nations showdown at the Stade de France, the England coach has succeeded in spectacular fashion.

At England's training headquarters earlier this week, Woodward ventured the opinion - which is not quite the accepted wisdom here in the French capital - that the rainy conditions at last year's World Cup semi-final against France had not favoured his team. Far from it, the England coach suggested. France, he said, had actually been saved from a much greater humiliation by the adverse weather.

England's 24-7 victory at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney was a savage blow to the morale of the French, whose form in the tournament had given the nation real hopes of overall victory. While nobody will ever know if the French would have beaten England in better conditions, the feeling here remains that the rain favoured Woodward's men.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Woodward's comments this week did not go down well with the French media. L'Equipe, France's leading daily sports newspaper, described the English coach as "a detestable man". Perhaps that was in response to comments attributed to David Ellis, the France defence coach, who was reported to have said that Woodward was "a miserable man". Ellis, however, strenuously denied saying anything of the sort and the French team and their coaching staff insisted yesterday that tensions were not rising as they prepared for tomorrow's match, in which victory will secure the Grand Slam for Bernard Laporte's men.

Fabien Pelous, the France captain, said that his team were simply concentrating on tomorrow's game. "We're not preparing to win a Grand Slam, or to get revenge for November - we're preparing to win a rugby match," he said.

Unlike Martin Johnson, his opposite man in the Sydney semi-final, Pelous, at the age of 30, is still hungry for victory. After the World Cup there was speculation about his possible retirement from international rugby, but he has since stated his intention to lead his side to the 2007 World Cup final.

After the defeat in Sydney Pelous went to the Australian outback in order to come to terms with his failure to achieve his great ambition. He watched the final in an isolated hamlet with 30 Australians but - like all his team-mates - he made it clear that he was supporting England.

Victory tomorrow would bring Pelous his fourth Grand Slam and cement his place in French rugby history. While the big forward may not have the charisma of his predecessor, Fabien Galthié, he has won over his colleagues with his professionalism and charm.

If Woodward's comments earlier this week troubled Laporte, the France coach was showing little sign of it yesterday, despite a certain wariness as he spoke to visiting journalists. After an English reporter had interrupted him to seek a response to Woodward's remarks about the rain in Sydney, Laporte simply asked if there were any more questions from French journalists.

If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, it is clear that Laporte has every respect for his English counterpart. The coach of the Tricolores has tried to import Woodward's professionalism to the French team with the introduction of dedicated coaches for the forwards and the defence as well as the time devoted to analysis of match videos.

Jo Maso, Laporte's assistant, insisted that the rivalry with England was a friendly one. For Maso, tomorrow is about winning an eighth Grand Slam, not defeating the world champions. He had his own rejoinder for Woodward. He suggested that if Woodward's holidays in Brittany were too wet, then the English coach should visit Lourdes, the shrine where Catholics go for miracle cures.

The French team's preparations were interrupted on Wednesday when the French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, dropped into the training camp on his way to a campaign tour for Sunday's regional elections.

Judging from the way the French squad and the coaching staff yesterday played down any suggestion of animosity towards their opponents tomorrow, Raffarin's political touch appears to have rubbed off.

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