French fears may scupper Six Nations

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The Calcutta Cup match between England and Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday is a definite starter, in so far as anything is definite in the face of escalating foot-and-mouth outbreaks the length and breadth of the British mainland, but the Six Nations' Championship may hit the buffers as soon as this weekend's business is completed. Tournament administrators will discuss the immediate future of the competition tomorrow, but the French have already registered their concern over matches scheduled between mid-March and early April.

The Calcutta Cup match between England and Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday is a definite starter, in so far as anything is definite in the face of escalating foot-and-mouth outbreaks the length and breadth of the British mainland, but the Six Nations' Championship may hit the buffers as soon as this weekend's business is completed. Tournament administrators will discuss the immediate future of the competition tomorrow, but the French have already registered their concern over matches scheduled between mid-March and early April.

Bernard Lapasset, the president of the French Rugby Federation and one of the most influential figures in the world game, was consulting with officials from his country's Ministry of Agriculture in an effort to assess the potential risk of allowing Wales to visit Paris a fortnight on Saturday - and, indeed, of permitting the Tricolores to fulfil their fixture with England in London on 7 April. The portents were not good. "With the situation as it is today, there is a risk of postponing those matches," he said.

Lapasset's warning came less than 24 hours after the scrapping of this weekend's Wales-Ireland game in Cardiff, a decision taken by the two unions, together with the Six Nations committee, after urgent requests from an Irish Government alarmed at the prospect of thousands of its citizens trooping in and out of Anglesey, where a foot-and-mouth outbreak had been confirmed. Now that further cases have been identified in Wales, the French are similarly concerned about the safety risks posed by large numbers of travelling supporters.

Meanwhile, the Scots travelled to their Calcutta Cup base in Surrey last night aware that some of their countrymen had lost their appetite for the occasion. Graham Law, the Scottish Rugby Union spokesman, confirmed that farmers north of the border had pressed for a postponement, but added: "We've spoken to the rural affairs department of the Scottish Executive and have received no advice telling us that the match should be called off. We're acting on that advice."

Martin Johnson, the England captain, said he expected the match to be played, but admitted that the remainder of the tournament was in considerable danger. "There is a serious situation going on out there in the countryside and it needs sorting before we can be sure of getting the go ahead to play some of these Six Nations fixtures," said the Leicester lock forward. "I hope for the sake of everyone concerned that the situation can be brought under control."

Tomorrow's Six Nations committee deliberations will be among the most delicate in recent rugby history. Ostensibly, the meeting has been called to discuss a new date for the Wales-Ireland match, but the delegates know that the tens of thousands of people with travel arrangements in place would much prefer an early decision on forthcoming matches, rather than a rash of last-minute postponements that might leave them heavily out of pocket. There is also the question of timetabling. If the tournament officials attempt to play postponed matches in late April or May, there will be awkward clashes with long-standing domestic and European finals.

There has been no serious disruption to the competition since 1972, when IRA activity prevented some matches being played in Ireland. England did visit Dublin that year - an occasion that prompted their captain, John Pullin, to make his famous comment: "We may not be any good, but at least we turn up." Turning up may not be an option this season. As Jo Maso, the French team manager, said yesterday: "This plague may unravel the entire tournament."

FRANCE v Italy (Six Nations' Championship, Rome, Saturday)

J-L Sadourny (Colomiers); P Bernat-Salles, S Bonetti (both Biarritz), T Lombard, C Dominici (both Stade Français); C Lamaison (Agen), F Galthié (Colomiers); C Califano (Stade Toulouse), R Ibanez (Castres), P De Villiers, D Auradou (both Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), C Moni, C Juillet (both Stade Français), O Magne (Montferrand). Replacements: F Landreau (Stade Français), S Marconnet (Stade Français), A Benazzi (Agen), S Betsen (Biarritz), P Carbonneau (Pau), G Merceron, D Bory (both Montferrand).

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