France keen to restore pride

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PARIS, February 4 – France start their defence of the Six Nations title here on Saturday against Scotland determined to produce an impressive performance that will erase memories of the 59-16 humbling by Australia last November.

In a Jekyll and Hyde year typical of French rugby, they left the Stade de France last March to a standing ovation having clinched their first Grand Slam since 2004 but left to jeers and worse in November following their abject display against the Wallabies.

Coach Marc Lievremont and his squad have vowed they owe the spectators and themselves a performance worthy of their status as defending champions and viable World Cup contenders.

But that could prove difficult against a Scottish side that has improved steadily under former England coach Andy Robinson.

Lievremont, who revamped the coaching structure in response to the Australian defeat giving himself a more hands-on role, has selected a much changed side from the one torn apart by Australia with, among others, veteran No8 Imanol Harinordoquy restored after being dropped for the Wallabies match.

However, Lievremont has once again raised eyebrows over his selection policy with his choice in the backs, pairing specialist winger Aurelien Rougerie alongside Maxime Mermoz in the centres whilst sending 32-year-old veteran Yannick Jauzion back to Toulouse.

Lievremont has also chosen the pedestrian Damien Traille to fill the pivotal role of fullback while the admittedly more inconsistent but more visionary Clement Poitrenaud warms the bench.

The coach, however, believes he has the right formula.

"I think it is an attack-minded backline," said the 42-year-old former international backrow forward, whose playing highlight was the 1999 World Cup final defeat to Australia.

"Now I think about it I have in the past selected other backlines which appeared to be well-balanced and often ended up being disappointed," added Lievremont, who has chosen a different backs division for the 18th time in his four year tenure.

His players are not taking the Scots lightly with both scrum-half Morgan Parra and Harinordoquy aware that if they throw caution to the wind in their desperate desire to woo back the favour of the home supporters the French could be caught on the counter-attack by their opponents.

"Scotland are both an ideal adversary and also one that could lure us into a trap," said Parra, who was one of the stars of last season’s Grand Slam side.

"It is a team which likes to play which is something that one rarely gets in the Six Nations, a team which has nothing to lose against France.

"The worry is that in wanting to quickly get the crowd on our side by playing free-flowing rugby and trying all sorts of things we will be hit on the counter-attack," added the 22-year-old Clermont scrum-half.

Robinson hopes to carry the momentum of five wins from the last six Tests – including a superb win over world champions South Africa – into the match and pull off their first win in Paris since 1999 and their first in their opening match since beating France in Edinburgh in 2006.

"International rugby is about maintaining forward momentum and, as Test matches go, France in the cauldron of Stade de France will be a stern examination," said Robinson, who has bounced back from a difficult period as England coach.

"I’ve remarked before that Scotland have produced some stirring one-off victories in the championship in the recent past and that what we need to do is produce winning performances consistently.

"We showed last year that that could be achieved following up our win against Ireland with our tour results in Argentina, though we know that we must be 100 percent on our top game for that aim to be realised."

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