French claim of dirty tricks shows fear of All Blacks

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The Independent Online

Bonhomie is in short supply here with France - no less determined than their New Zealand visitors this evening to demonstrate they are on course for a successful World Cup 10 months hence - accusing the All Blacks of dirty tricks at the tackle area and set-piece. Quelle surprise, you may say. But on this Armistice Day, when each of the New Zealanders' jerseys will be sporting a commemorative poppy, it is more than a phoney war. The All Blacks have skills enough without being permitted an unfair advantage.

The irony is that France's assistant coach, Jacques Brunel, appeared to turn on one of his own when he observed after New Zealand's record 41-20 win over England at Twickenham last Sunday that the All Blacks "benefit from a lot of indulgence" from referees at the tackle, scrum and line-out. The referee was Joël Jutge, a Frenchman. It will not happen again here in the south-east of France, or in next week's second Test in Paris, if Brunel and company get their way.

The All Black coach, Graham Henry, responded coolly yesterday, saying: "I'd just ask [today's referee] Stuart Dickinson to call it as he sees it. Statistically, there seems to have been a trend towards home advantage in the award of penalties in the last few years which is maybe something for the International Rugby Board to look at." Henry emphasised that this apparent bias was a subconscious one.

So we wait to see if New Zealand deploy their eccentric method of scrum engagement from above their opponents' shoulder line - which Jutge punished only after about 20 minutes of initial leniency - and whether All Black bodies continue to fly illegally over rucks at a rate of knots.

The tourists have spent the week in Marseilles, their probable World Cup base, and have their captain, Richie McCaw, at open-side flanker, and Dan Carter - scorer of 26 points against England - at fly-half. Whether the rest of the XV, with 10 changes from Twickenham, constitutes their strongest line-up is open to debate. There is no Chris Jack in the second row but in several other positions - such as the back three where Leon MacDonald and Sitiveni Sivivatu are recalled to join Joe Rokocoko - probably only Henry knows for sure who his absolute preferred choice would be. For only their sixth Test in Lyon, the French were unable to select Frédéric Michalak at fly-half, due to a recent injury. Instead, Damien Traille of Biarritz, commonly a centre, takes the role with a brief to handle the back-row rough stuff from McCaw, Jerry Collins and Rodney So'oialo.

Good luck to him. Clermont Auvergne's No 8 Elvis Vermeulen, last capped in 2003, returns, with the off-form Biarritz flanker Serge Betsen omitted. This fixture tends to bring out the best in at least one of the sides. Wayne Shelford's ripped-scrotum exploits in 1986; the surprise World Cup semi-final victory by France in 1999; and, of course, New Zealand's stunning 45-6 victory in Paris two Novembers ago, the last time the two teams met. Les Bleus' self-confidence collapsed like a poorly cooked soufflé. If the Six Nations champions buck their ideas up against the Tri-Nations holders here in France's gastronomic capital, a rugby feast awaits.

France: J Laharrague (Perpignan); A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), F Fritz, Y Jauzion (both Toulouse), C Dominici (Stade Français); D Traille, D Yachvili (both Biarritz); S Marconnet, D Szarzewski, P de Villiers (all Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), P Papé (Castres), T Dusautoir (Toulouse), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin), E Vermeulen (Clermont Auvergne). Replacements: R Ibanez (London Wasps), O Milloud (Bourgoin), L Nallet (Castres), R Martin (Stade Français), J-B Elissalde (Toulouse), D Marty (Perpignan), C Heymans (Toulouse).

New Zealand: L MacDonald (Canterbury); J Rokocoko (Auckland), C Smith (Wellington), L McAlister (North Harbour), S Sivivatu (Waikato); D Carter (Canterbury), P Weepu (Wellington); T Woodcock (North Harbour), A Oliver, C Hayman, J Ryan (all Otago), A Williams (Auckland), J Collins (Wellington), R McCaw (Canterbury, capt), R So'oialo (Wellington). Replacements: K Mealamu (Auckland), N Tialata (Wellington), J Eaton (Taranaki), C Masoe (Wellington), B Kelleher (Waikato), M Nonu (Wellington), M Muliaina (Waikato).

Referee: S Dickinson (Australia).