Les Bleus lose their maestro for England visit

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The Independent Online

England needed a little good news yesterday, having been roundly slaughtered for their Six Nations efforts to date, and they duly received it – from the French, of all people on God's earth. Marc Lièvremont, the new coach of Les Bleus, announced that the most influential individual in his boldly experimental side, the Toulouse scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, would miss the game between the two countries in Paris this weekend after twanging a calf muscle.

Elissalde's performance in the opening-round victory over Scotland at Murrayfield was one of the more majestic Tricolore contributions in recent memory. It had pretty much everything: iron control, a faultless sense of direction and lashings of old-fashioned rugby wisdom. As he is a useful short-range goal-kicker into the bargain, England will be highly delighted to see the back of him, even though his replacement in the squad, Dimitri Yachvili of Biarritz, has caused Les Rosbifs a fair bit of trouble down the years.

France have lost a second player in the very different shape of Julien Brugnaut, the front-row forward from Dax, but if truth be told, Brian Ashton and company would rather have seen him in the side than out of it. Brugnaut, selected from the back end of nowhere at the start of the tournament, has struggled in the tight phases – the French scrummage is a subject of much concerned debate amongst aficionados on the far side of the Channel – and by recalling Jean-Baptiste Poux in his stead, Lièvremont has strengthened his options in this area.

Ashton, the England head coach, had his own injury issue when Shane Geraghty, playing as well as any midfielder in England until he suffered knee problems midway through London Irish's victory over Leicester two days ago, was ruled out of contention for Saturday's repeat of last autumn's World Cup semi-final. Geraghty is no more than a fringe player, however, and the red-rose hierarchy were far more interested in the medical bulletins concerning the two first-choice props, Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery, and four others who started the last match against Italy in Rome: the Bath lock Steve Borthwick, the Harlequins scrum-half Andy Gomarsall, the Newcastle centre Jamie Noon and the Wasps wing Paul Sackey.

Of this sextet, only Vickery set foot on the field at the weekend. The fact that he stayed there for 80-plus minutes and played a full hand for Wasps in an exhaustingly fluid match with Bath should persuade Ashton to restore him to England's front row and hand him back the captaincy into the bargain. Borthwick, who led the side for the first time in Italy, made a fine job of it – indeed, the beaten World Cup finalists would have lost without him – but his chance will come again, possibly as soon as this summer.

Borthwick looked full of the joys at the weekend – at least, he did until Bath capitulated dramatically in the opening minutes of the second half – and was convinced he would shake off his knee injury in time for Saturday night's match in Paris. The other Premiership non-participants were also thought to be well on the road to fitness, although Ashton will want a complete assurance that Sheridan has recovered from the infected ankle wound that hospitalised him ahead of the Italy game. Sheridan is falling ill a little too often for English comfort just at the moment.

Frank Hadden, the Scotland coach, drafted two of his stricken individuals, Rory Lamont and Simon Webster, back into a 25-man squad for the meeting with Ireland on Saturday, and there is a chance that both will make the cut for the trip to Croke Park. It is by no means plain sailing for Hadden, however, for he has other problems to address. The captain Jason White has yet to resume contact training after taking a blow to the head in the wretched defeat by Wales, while a second flanker, John Barclay, missed yesterday's session with a hand injury.

Meanwhile, the sport's governing body announced that the 2007 World Cup broke records right, left and centre. According to International Rugby Board figures, the tournament attracted a total television audience of 4.2bn – up almost 1bn on the 2003 competition in Australia – and enticed 2,240,000 supporters through the turnstiles, an increase of 340,000 on 2003.

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