Les Bleus could pay the penalty for faulty scrums, says Ibanez

Former captain gives hope to English pack but trusts new coach
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The Independent Online

Raphaël Ibanez is too dignified a character to suggest his retirement from international rugby was implicated directly in the French scrum buckling against Ireland last weekend to concede a penalty try, but the former captain of Les Bleus identifies it as a huge area of concern before next week's resumption of the Six Nations' Championship against England.

"I cannot remember any French team giving away a penalty try in the scrum at Stade de France, or anywhere else for that matter," said Ibanez. "That's pretty embarrassing. Of course England will target this area, but at least France will have had two weeks to prepare a plan."

The man who needs to have that plan is Marc Lièvremont, the new head coach, who has begun his tenure with Six Nations wins over Scotland away and – that penalty try notwithstanding – Ireland in Paris, 26-21. As a former Test flanker, Lièvremont packed down with Ibanez, the hooker now concerned solely with club duties at Wasps, in France's 1998 Grand Slam side. And Ibanez is convinced the shock Irish score – the culmination of five successive scrums on the French line, though only two were called as penalties by the Welsh referee, Nigel Owens – will have forced a change in thinking from his one-time confrère.

"Marc has his convictions, he wants his players free to attack the opposition, to play what's in front of them," said Ibanez. "But he will not forget the basics. The first half against Ireland was pretty exceptional, especially from the back three. The secondhalf showed a few problems at set-pieces. Now there's a big debate in France about how the team should approach the game. I may be wrong, but I think the forwards will play a bigger part against England, they will try to work more around the fringes."

That might suit England's big forwards, and of course Ibanez and friends – minus the injured Stade Français prop Sylvain Marconnet, who is still not fit to return – were on the wrong end of a World Cup semi-final skewering by Les Rosbifs in Paris only last October. But Ibanez draws strength from his personal experience of Lièvremont. "It was interesting to see Marc's reaction after the Ireland match. Straight afterwards he said he was pleased and proud. The following day he went into his players' meeting and said he wasn't happy at all with their control. Just because he is giving players freedom doesn't mean there is no control.

"When we were playing, Marc was one of the most honest players in the French squad: direct, a hard worker and quiet but a strong character. He is a bit like me: there's a desire boiling inside and sometimes it can come out when you don't see it coming."

Ibanez recalls an incident about three weeks before the 1999 World Cup. The French had finished bottom of the Five Nations, losing at home to Scotland and Wales. "We were in trouble, the atmosphere in the training camp was terrible," Ibanez said. "I'd had enough, I set up a meeting. I was the first to speak as captain and Marc was the second. He hadn't said a single word for about two months. But what he said that day was pretty harsh.

"He was face to face with one particular player – a forward who is still playing today – and he said, 'We're starting a World Cup soon and I don't reallyknow if I can trust you'. It was a moment we have always remembered. We started winning games and we ended up in the final."

Ibanez the Basque advises his old Catalan friend Lièvremont – one of seven rugby-playing brothers – not to get "caught up" making pre-planned substitutions, and to pipe up more in public too. "I read that at his first training session as France coach the fans were disappointed," said Ibanez. "They were waiting for Marc to say something but he left it for [assistant coaches] Emile Ntamack and Didier Retière. I smiled and I thought, 'Yeah, this is Marc'. But it's the team of the nation and the people have the right to know what's going on. You need to give some of your emotions to the fans. It's not easy for him, I guess."

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