Ruck and Maul: Opinions divided over Gallic greatness. <i>Plus &#231;a change</i>...

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The Independent Online

France's representation in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup is set for a record high, in contrast to 2009 when only three of their clubs qualified for the combined last 16.

Huge wages, strengthening the playing squads, is one often-aired explanation. The singular dedication to their domestic league has gradually tempered, too. Still, there are differing opinions.

Philippe Saint-André, the Toulon coach formerly with Sale and Gloucester, said last week: "We used to need the Kiwis and English players to provide the rigour here. Now every French club has those qualities."

Not according to Bath's Scotland back-rower Simon Taylor, when interviewed in the Rugby Players' Association magazine on his stint at Stade Français: "[In England] we get in early, hammer the gym work then head straight to the field for a well-considered intense session full of detail. [In Paris] we would start late and generally plod through the day... lots of hours on your feet but very little in the way of analysis and forethought... the facilities are very limited and there is no specialist coaching. We once drove as a convoy looking for somewhere to train on an icy day as one local groundsman after another told us to piss off!"

Mallett linked with RFU role

Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Cipriani may not be alone in suffering at England's promise of picking only home-based players from next year (though the get-out clause of "exceptional circumstances" remains).

Ruck and Maul can reveal there are no fewer than 32 Englishmen playing professionally in other countries: 21 in France's Top 14 and Pro-D2 leagues, six in Italy's Eccellenza, four in the Magners League and "Cips" in Super Rugby.

Lucky there's a steady stream of Pacific Islanders and Tri-Nations types to fill in for them here, eh? While on the subject of overseas talent, Ruck and Maul wonders how soon Nick Mallett's name might be linked with the new role of RFU Performance Director, now he has confirmed he will quit as Italy coach after the World Cup. Oh, we've just done it.

Raise a glass (of Coke?) for Stevens

England prop Matt Stevens returned to rugby with a smile last Wednesday, at the culmination of his two-year ban for cocaine use.

A common argument is that a player should not be banned for using the white powder, as it is not "performance-enhancing"; it would never have made Stevens a better player. The sanctions in England differ in and out of competition.

Out of competition, under the Rugby Football Union's innovative "two-strike" illicit drugs policy, a first offence for cocaine brings a fixed fine of £5,000 for a senior professional, advice on treatment and no publicity.

In competition, players come under the World Anti-Doping Agency code, which continues to recommend a two-year ban, citing the dangers to the health of the athlete. Some would say alcohol is just as harmful or insidious, although its intake has long been a byword for rugby relaxation.

Stevens's "hello again" press conference was held at Saracens' training ground, which is also the Old Albanians RFC clubhouse, in a room with 41 bottles of spirits and nine beer taps behind the bar. The Aviva Premiership has run a cautionary "attitude to alcohol" programme for all its players. His sentence served, Stevens is set to begin his bid for an England recall with an A-league match against Wasps tomorrow, and he is happily occupied in his downtime caring for his 12-week-old twin daughters, Ava and Coco.

Saints run for their money

Marathon season is approaching and Northampton's chief executive, Allan Robson, is one of four Saints staff running the London race in April, in aid of Autism Concern, whose past patrons include Sir Ian McGeechan and Pat Lam.

The 2010 marathon was Robson's first. Since then he's become hooked and has completed the Berlin version too. The quartet hope to raise £4,000 – donate via www.justgiving.com/Saints-Runners

hughgodwin@yahoo.co.uk

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