Woodward's men desperate to spoil the French party

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The Independent Online

It is more than a decade since England lost two championship matches in the same campaign, but ancient history is not always the irrelevance Clive Woodward makes it out to be. In February 1993, Rory Underwood disappeared into the land of dreams at the Arms Park in Cardiff and cost England a tight game against Wales. Six weeks later, seven English forwards fell asleep simultaneously in Dublin and awoke to the sound of raucous Irish celebrations. The sole exception, dear old Jeff Probyn, was the only member of the pack left out of the Lions party that summer, which said everything that needed saying about British Isles selectors.

It is more than a decade since England lost two championship matches in the same campaign, but ancient history is not always the irrelevance Clive Woodward makes it out to be. In February 1993, Rory Underwood disappeared into the land of dreams at the Arms Park in Cardiff and cost England a tight game against Wales. Six weeks later, seven English forwards fell asleep simultaneously in Dublin and awoke to the sound of raucous Irish celebrations. The sole exception, dear old Jeff Probyn, was the only member of the pack left out of the Lions party that summer, which said everything that needed saying about British Isles selectors.

There is another Lions tour on the distant horizon, and Woodward will be running it. While the squad will not be finalised until this time next year, senior members of this England side could easily play themselves out of contention at Stade de France this evening. At the start of this Six Nations tournament, it was difficult to identify a white-shirted regular who would not be an automatic choice for the main event of 2005. Four matches down the road, those early assumptions are looking just a little shaky.

If, as he indicated yesterday, Woodward plans to introduce fresh ingredients to the England mix when the world champions travel to New Zealand and Australia in a little over two months, individual performances will count for an enormous amount. No place in June will mean marginalisation come the autumn internationals; marginalisation then will certainly impact on chances of making the Lions cut. Big-name players - the Thompsons and Vickerys, the Kays and Worsleys, even the Greenwoods and Lewseys - have their rear ends on the line, and they know it.

"You can almost smell the attitude amongst the players; it's been building all week," said Andy Robinson, Woodward's second-in-command, yesterday. "The intensity is always greater when the fear factor kicks in," said Phil Larder, the specialist defensive coach. England tend to scale the psychological peaks when confronted by the French - "There is something about this lot that inspires us," agreed Robinson- and the fact that the Tricolores are in Grand Slam territory only increases the desire.

Woodward would give his eye teeth to spike French ambitions here, for success would reinforce England's claims to cross-Channel superiority in the face of continuing assertions that the wet weather - and only the wet weather - cost France victory in the World Cup semi-final in Sydney last November. But he is primarily driven by an even more urgent yearning to see his side hit real form and draw the thickest of black lines under the defeat by Ireland at Twickenham three weeks ago.

Some high-profile commentators, not least the former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick, have been laying into Woodward's side with considerable relish. Would he be making motivational use of all this criticism? "You can't go down that road," said Woodward with a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. "If you trotted out everything people said about England, your team talk would go on for three weeks." As things stand, the coach could button his lip after about three seconds and still feel safe in the knowledge that his players will summon the furies of hell in pursuit of another comprehensive victory over the Tricolores. But the events in Australia last November have left the hosts similarly charged for the battle ahead, and for that reason, the fixture has a whiff of the classic about it.

Fabien Pelous, their Johnson-esque captain, refuses to use the weather as an explanation for the competitive paralysis that gripped his side that day. "If people want to use that excuse, I feel sorry for them," he said yesterday. But many of his colleagues feel the New South Wales deluge cost them a place in the World Cup final and, the way some of them tell it, ultimate victory. "The worst moment was probably during the bus ride to the stadium," recalled Nicolas Brusque, the superb full-back from Biarritz. "We just hadn't expected it to happen. Nobody spoke. We just sat silently, watching the rain banging on the windows."

For his part, Frédéric Michalak, the gifted Toulouse outside-half who was expected by many to win the game for France that day, pronounced himself "disgusted" by the tactical naivete of his performance. He, more than any Frenchman, will seek redress this evening. Worryingly for England, Michalak is perfectly equipped to secure it. The same goes for Christophe Dominici, Yannick Jauzion, Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy.

With the Tricolores driven by the stain of the recent past and England by the fear of a future cull, the emotional balance of tonight's game is delicate indeed. The English enjoy playing France more than the French enjoy playing England, but there again, "I want to win this game and go home," Woodward said. "I'm not sure I would take particular satisfaction in spoiling a French Grand Slam."

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