France play their joker and shuffle the pack
The usual currency of the Six Nations Championship – predictable team selections mixed with unpredictable added extras, generally of the disciplinary variety – was turned on its head yesterday. Everyone knew by the end of the opening weekend that Bradley Davies, the Wales lock, would be dragged before the bench to answer for the spectacularly dangerous tackle he inflicted on Donnacha Ryan during his side's compelling victory in Dublin, and he was duly cited yesterday. Meanwhile, the France coach Philippe Saint-André sprang the first major surprise of the tournament by stripping out his winning forward pack ahead of Saturday night's meeting with Ireland.
Saint-André, one game into his international coaching career, has relegated the prop Vincent Debaty, the hooker William Servat, the lock Lionel Nallet and the flanker Julien Bonnaire to the bench and called up Jean-Baptiste Poux, Dimitri Szarzewski, Yoann Maestri and Imanol Harinordoquy. It would be stretching a point to suggest that this weakens Les Bleus ahead of a game that has long been talked of as a potential title decider: Poux was a first-choice prop in the side that reached the World Cup final last October while Harinordoquy was one of the stand-out performers in that tournament. But Servat, Nallet and Bonnaire were heavy hitters then and remain so now. They cannot have expected to be victims of a cull, having contributed to the comfortable win over Italy four days ago.
Saint-André was at pains to point out that the demoted players were not objects of blame. "We worked hard in training last week – maybe too hard – and I want to bring some freshness into the team," said the former Gloucester and Sale coach. "There is no sanction here: we're a united squad. But Ireland will offer something different to the Italians and it will be a tough fight for 80 minutes. It is logical to bring in Imanol for the line-outs, and as Louis Picamoles' performance at No 8 was great both defensively and offensively, Harinordoquy will play on the flank."
By comparison, the fallout from the Ireland v Wales game was entirely foreseeable. Davies spent time in the sin bin after taking exception to Ryan's behaviour at a second-half ruck, but not even his own coach, Warren Gatland, expected it to be the end of the story. If the Cardiff Blues forward is available for this weekend's meeting with Scotland after today's disciplinary hearing in London, the whole of Wales will be pleasantly surprised.
Also up before the tribunal will be Stephen Ferris, the Irish flanker. He too was yellow-carded for a tip-tackle, this one on the Wales lock Ian Evans, although in most eyes his offence was lower down the scale of seriousness.
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