French shock at omission of Wilkinson

Lièvremont talks England up despite changes but admits to knowing little about Ashton
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The Independent Online

Having spent the earlier part of this week talking up the threat posed by Jonny Wilkinson, the France camp yesterday conducted an about-turn worthy of the most adept of politicians following England's decision to drop the outside half for tomorrow's Six Nations finale at the Stade de France.

"I haven't forgotten that Wilkinson wasn't playing last year at Twickenham and Toby Flood was at fly-half," Marc Lièvremont, the France coach, said before one of his squad's final training sessions here at the team's headquarters at Marcoussis. "It didn't save us from conceding 30 points."

The truth is that the French find it hard to understand the criticism directed at Wilkinson during this year's championship. They see only un grand joueur, a World Cup winner with a big-game mentality who has responded admirably, even at a late stage in his career, to the challenge of playing his club rugby in France.

Before Martin Johnson's decision to give Flood his chance, Lièvremont had identified Wilkinson as a major threat to his team's chances of completing their first Grand Slam for six years. "We have the advantage of knowing him well," the coach had said. "We are forewarned and we are telling ourselves that we will be facing the best Jonny Wilkinson. He has the potential to make his team win."

Lièvremont admitted yesterday that he had not anticipated Wilkinson being on the bench. "I was expecting Wilkinson to start if he was fit, or not to take part at all if he hadn't recovered from injury," the coach said. "But we know that if the match is in the balance, Wilkinson can come on – and that could be decisive."

The French coach said that through their team selection England had "unveiled their game plan". He had expected the return of both Simon Shaw, "the cornerstone of the English pack", and Mike Tindall, "even if Mathew Tait is more creative and unpredictable".

Lièvremont described the English back line as "powerful, hard and experienced" but admitted he knew little about Chris Ashton. "He has scored 15 tries for Northampton this year," Lièvremont said. "He fits into that mould of English three-quarters who are very strong and solid."

Thierry Dusautoir, France's captain, said he expected England to field a team designed to counter French strengths. "I think I've played against England four or five times and they've always done that, especially in important matches, which they've won through our errors," he said. "I think they're setting out to do the same here, counting on us to make mistakes. We are at least forewarned. It's up to us to prepare accordingly." Dusautoir said he admired the way that England could win matches without necessarily being the better team. "In our recent matches against them, which have been important occasions for us, we've started as favourites each time and lost."

Lièvremont agreed with Johnson that France, at home and playing for a Grand Slam, had more to lose and could be affected by the pressure. "We'll be playing for high stakes and it could inhibit our players, but we know it and we'll take it into account," he said. Dusautoir, however, believes his team will remain focused. "I sense that this group of players have a real desire to achieve that and to finish the job in style," he said. "I don't think we'll be nervous. There will be tension, because this is the last match, we're up against England and the stakes are high, but it won't be anything more than that."