Mermoz on centre stage against Boks

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The Independent Online

The heated discussion about how far the Wallabies are ahead of England in their team-building for the next World Cup – a very long way indeed, if last weekend's events at Twickenham were any guide – could be put into an uncomfortable perspective tonight when France play South Africa in the great rugby hotbed of Toulouse. The Tricolores's new midfield pairing of Maxime Mermoz and Yann David brings together centres with a combined age of 44 and if they click against a side as good as the Springboks, the next global gathering in 2011 will be their playground.

If the tourists were caught with their pants round their ankles by Leicester at Welford Road a week ago, they are unlikely to use the experience as a reference point. None of the 15 who started that game will be on the field at kick-off time this evening: indeed, the Boks will be virtually at full strength up front and at half-back. Their only issues are to be found in the backs, where the absent Jean de Villiers is replaced by Adrian Jacobs and the troublesome No 15 slot is filled by the unproven Zane Kirchner.

The reigning world champions have prevailed in only two of their eight meetings with the French over the course of this decade but the Springbok coach Peter de Villiers can absorb a defeat. However, Marc Lièvremont, the home coach, will see this match as a potential launchpad after the oddities and weirdnesses of last season's Six Nations campaign.

Renowned as a bold, imaginative selector, his decision to ditch Yannick Jauzion for tonight is wholly characteristic. Indeed, Lièvremont has recently taken to describing Mermoz as "undroppable" while quietly easing Jauzion, once regarded as the world's best, into international irrelevance.

Wales, who play Samoa at the Millennium Stadium tonight, are also in reasonable shape, despite slipping off the pace against the All Blacks last Saturday. Warren Gatland, the head coach, will be particularly interested in the contribution of the 20-year-old Dan Biggar at outside-half, not least because Stephen Jones, a dozen years the young Osprey's senior, may not make it as far as the World Cup.

For similar reasons, Gatland will also take note of Sam Warburton's performance on the open-side flank. Martyn Williams may still be the most accomplished breakaway forward in these islands, but at 34, the dear old thing is knocking on a bit. Wales need to find an alternative, and soon.

Wales J Hook (Ospreys); L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), T James (Cardiff Blues); D Biggar (Ospreys), D Peel (Sale Sharks); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), H Bennett (Ospreys), P James (Ospreys), A W Jones (Ospreys), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), A Powell (Cardiff Blues), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt). Replacements: M Rees (Scarlets), C Mitchell (Ospreys), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Roberts (Scarlets), J Davies (Scarlets), M Stoddart (Scarlets).

Samoa L Lui (Apia); D Lemi (Wasps), G Williams (Clermont Auvergne), S Mapusua (London Irish), A Tuilagi (Apia); F Fili (Wellington), J Polu (Bay of Plenty); J Va'a (Glasgow), M Schwalger (Sale Sharks), C Johnston (Toulouse), F Levi (Newcastle), I Tekori (Castres), G Stowers (London Irish, capt), O Treviranis (Apia West), H Tuilagi (Perpignan). Replacements: A Williams (Apia West), S Taulafo (Tasman), K Thompson (Dax), J Faamatuianu (Bath), U Mai (Apia West), H Fa'afili (Leeds Carnegie), T Esau (Apia West).

Referee: P Fitzgibbon (Ireland).

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