France give warm welcome to IRB's yellow card fever

Chris Hewett
Friday 14 February 2003 01:00

The great and the good of the International Rugby Board generally pipe up 48 hours or so before the start of a Six Nations Championship, thereby giving players and coaches no time whatsoever to digest the implications of their latest pronouncement on how the game should be played.

They were at it again yesterday, calling on referees to wield the yellow card the moment a player transgresses at the tackle area – an edict that gives Martin Johnson, the England captain and a season-ticket holder at the sin-bin, a better than even chance of getting 10 minutes rest during tomorrow's match with France at Twickenham.

There will also be a tightening up at the set-piece, where scrum-halves face severe sanctions should they continue their time-honoured habit of feeding the ball under the feet of their own hookers, rather than straight down the tunnel. But the refereeing of the breakdown will take precedence. "Officials are encouraged to deal firmly with players who deliberately slow down the delivery of the ball at the tackle," the governing body said in a statement from its headquarters in Dublin, "irrespective of the time in the match or the position on the field. This should ensure a more open and fluid game."

If the French love anything, it is an open and fluid game. Hence the reaction of Bernard Laporte, the Tricolore coach, to the IRB's last-minute words of wisdom. "A good decision, I think," Laporte said. "Interference with the ball at the breakdown is the main reason why the game is so fractured, so lacking in continuity."

As long as he persuades Serge Betsen, the Biarritz flanker and one of the more unashamed breakdown bandits in the world game, to keep his hands to himself, France will expect to come out in front on this one.

Laporte was full of praise for England yesterday; having suggested 24 hours previously that the challenge of winning at Twickenham was "less than Himalayan", he spent his first afternoon on this side of the Channel describing the prospect as something truly mountainous, like Everest and K2 combined. "England have won 18 consecutive Tests at Twickenham," he pointed out. "I must say 'bravo' to them." This sent his countrymen into paroxysms of laughter – Fabien Galthié, the captain, almost fell off his chair – but the coach at least sounded as though he meant it.

It may well be that the good old days of verbal thrust and counter-thrust – frown and pout in Paris and London, you might say – have gone for ever. Laporte genuinely respects England's ultra-disciplined approach to the game, reflected in their lo error count as well as their priceless ability to stay on the right side of referees. He has made it his business to instill these values into the French squad and believes the two sides have more in common now than at any time in 97 years of cross-Channel competition.

"Our philosophies are closer than ever before," he said. "We have taken a lot of ideas from England and Australia in particular, especially in terms of phase-play and defence. We have learned to be patient. And now, in World Cup year, the big thing is that we continue along this road, continue to progress. This is why it is not really important to me who England have picked for this game – whether Jonny Wilkinson and Charlie Hodgson will change positions sometimes, or whether one will be at outside-half right through the match. We do not need to know how England intend to play, only how we intend to play."

Unsurprisingly, Laporte was reluctant to discuss the loss of his premier prop forward, Pieter de Villiers, whom he dropped from the Six Nations squad following allegations of drug misuse. He did, however, refer to Imanol Harinordoquy's widely reported swipe at "English arrogance", claiming that the loose forward from Pau had fallen victim to "one crazy journalist".

If nothing crazier than that happens this weekend, veterans of past battles will leave Twickenham with a sad shake of the head, convinced that rugby in the professional era has gone very soft indeed.

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