Marconnet may hold key to battle of packs in Paris

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The Independent Online

Sometimes it is Fabien Pelous, the ancient captain; sometimes, it is a young hot-head like Imanol Harinordoquy, the fiery Basque back-rower. The French habitually came a poor second in the pre-match verbalising during the dark years of the early 1990s, so they now make it their business to get their insults in first ahead of a Six Nations meeting with England. Yesterday, it was the turn of Olivier Magne, their thoroughbred open-side flanker, to spout forth.

"The English game is based on physical strength, discipline, seriousness and determination, but they probably lack creativity," said Magne, who plays his club rugby in the Guinness Premiership with London Irish. "Commitment has to be present even in training, which is why they are always ready for the fights on the pitch. However, they struggle to get out of their pre-established plan and can easily get lost when they are unsettled."

By Tricolore standards, this was not particularly controversial stuff - certainly, it did not match Harinordoquy's celebrated intervention in 2002, in which he stated bluntly that he did not like the English - and it will not cost the visitors a moment's shut-eye over the coming 48 hours. Neither will the contribution of the France coach Bernard Laporte, who described England as a "brick wall".

What may worry the world champions is the notion that their hosts have pulled a fast one in the front row by recalling the multi-faceted Sylvain Marconnet at loose-head and demoting Olivier Milloud, an out-and-out scrummager, to the bench. England, who named their side 24 hours earlier, assumed Milloud would start, and picked Julian White, the Leicester strongman, to meet him. Matt Stevens of Bath, very much a chip off the Marconnet block in terms of his mobility and footballing skills, suffered badly at the hands of Milloud in a Heineken Cup game last season and was seen as a more worthwhile bet on the opposite side of the scrum.

Can England hope to prosper? Phil Keith-Roach, their scrummaging coach, thinks they can.

"It will be a wonderful contest, I know that," he said before leaving for Paris. "Who will come out on top? Well, we'll see, won't we? Prop forwards climb to the top of their little domestic pyramid and then hit the international field like fighting dogs and start scrapping to the death. How many boxers in history have predicted with genuine assurance what they will achieve? Two or three, at most. It's the same with front-row forwards. I'll be fascinated to see what happens in this game.

"I believe we have a good combination. White is a very hard man with a lot of experience; Stevens is a remarkably gifted player, a prop with the range of a centre who has met each challenge and answered every question put in front of him. What excites me is that I really don't know how far he can go. I'm also excited by the other props in the squad, Andrew Sheridan and Perry Freshwater. When I look around the world, I'm not sure I see countries with our strength in depth in this department.

"This is a very difficult prospect, though. We know the French can tag-team us with Marconnet and Milloud, and we know that with Pieter de Villiers on the tight-head side they will scrummage with discipline as well as with iron strength and ferocity. Their scrum used to be like a hand grenade - explosive, but sometimes damaging to their own cause because of the penalties they conceded. Now, they have much more control."

At least the set-piece should be refereed with sympathy, unlike three years ago at Twickenham, when the New Zealander Paul Honiss whistled the French to distraction. Alain Rolland, the highly rated Irishman, was an international scrum-half and knows his way around the 16-man wrestling match. He also speaks fluent French.

* The Lions lock Paul O'Connell, who suffered a shoulder injury a month ago, will start for Ireland against Scotland on Sunday after passing a fitness test.

Six Nations teams

France (to play England at the Stade de France, Sunday)

15 T Castaignède (Saracens)

14 A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne) 13 F Fritz (Toulouse)

12 D Traille (Biarritz)

11 C Dominici (Stade Français)

10 F Michalak (Toulouse)

9 D Yachvili (Biarritz)

1 S Marconnet (Stade Français)

2 R Ibañez (Wasps)

3 P de Villiers (Stade Français)

4 J Thion (Biarritz)

5 F Pelous (Toulouse, capt)

6 Y Nyanga (Toulouse)

7 O Magne (London Irish)

8 T Lièvremont (Biarritz)

Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Français), O Milloud (Bourgoin), L Nallet (Castres), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin), J-B Elissalde (Toulouse), L Valbon (Brive), C Heymans (Toulouse)

Italy (to play Wales at the Millennium Stadium, tomorrow)

15 E Galon (Overmach Parma)

14 P Canavosio (Calvisano)

13 G Canale (Clermont Auvergne)

12 Mi Bergamasco (Stade Français)

11 L Nitoglia (Calvisano)

10 R Pez (Perpignan)

9 P Griffen (Calvisano)

1 S Perugini (Calvisano)

2 F Ongaro (Treviso)

3 C Nieto (Viadana)

4 S Dellape (Agen)

5 M Bortolami (Narbonne, capt)

6 S Parisse (Stade Français)

7 M Zaffiri (Calvisano)

8 J Sole (Viadana)

Replacements: C Festuccia (Gran Parma), A Lo Cicero (L'Aquila), M Castrogiovanni (Calvisano), C Del Fava (Bourgoin), A Zanni (Calvisano), S Picone (Treviso), C Stoica (Montpellier)