Chabal remains a divisive figure
February 23, 2011
Sebastien Chabal remains a divisive figure in France © Getty Images
You would expect France to be travelling to Twickenham full of hope and expectation this weekend but the mood in the camp is apparently pretty pessimistic.
Earlier in the week, reports suggest that that losing by less than 15 points would be considered a good result. Now, they have revised that to less than 10 but morale is clearly not great - unless Marc Lievremont is still trying to play mind games.
Talking about the starting XV for the England game, he insists he is merely rotating his squad but not everybody is happy with his selections.
Morgan Parra, Julien Bonnaire, Damien Traille and Clement Poitrenaud have been dropped, with Dimitri Yachvili and Sebastien Chabal headlining the recalls. Since Chabal has returned to France he has divided the nation. He became an iconic figure while playing in England but at home he is regarded by many as something of a show pony.
They are not impressed by the big charges and would like to see him committing to the hard graft. Lievremont does not appear to rate him but there is a big lobby for Louis Picamoles, the Toulouse No.8, who made a huge contribution when France beat South Africa a couple of years ago.
He comes from the same mould as the long line of No. 8s going right back to the great Walter Spanghero, who were real enforcers and added power in the tight leaving the flankers to do the flashy stuff in the loose.
From Lievremont's comments you would think Chabal had had an enormous impact when he came on from the bench in the first two games but several of his lieutenants think otherwise. The Machiavellian school of thought says that this is his last chance. If, having been given a starting slot, he does not impress he is likely to be out in the cold.
The same group think it is also the last chance saloon for Aurelian Rougerie and Yannick Jauzion. They were disastrous against Australia in the autumn - that defeat made a lasting impression on the psyche of the nation - and they also need to restore their reputations or face the axe.
The French camp has more leaks than a colander so the team is almost certainly aware of the mixed messages, which probably explains the pessimism. Only the French could be in such a stew when they have started well and are preparing for the biggest game of the Championship.
England are in a far better place. They have been forced to make more changes in the forwards than they would have wished because of injuries but everybody has stepped up as required and now the squad looks stronger than anyone could have imagined a year ago.
The only selection dilemmas are the sort Martin Johnson will relish - he is picking from strength - and England also now appear confident about the style of rugby they want to play. This time last year he was tearing his hair out but now he can indulge himself and, with a big smile, address such issues as how to dissuade Chris Ashton from excess swallow diving when he scores.
What a nonsense - it almost seems to have overshadowed the real issue. He is a very special talent and other rugby union backs, wings in particular, can learn a great deal by studying his running off the ball.
It is partly his own perceptiveness but I believe it also comes from having played rugby league in his formative years. That often has a downside as we know but league players have to develop great running angles because they affectively have to make the breakthrough from first phase possession, Ashton's timing is just about perfect.
I would be amazed if the winners on Saturday do not go on to take the Grand Slam because the second round of matches exposed the flaws of the other sides that flattered to deceive in week one.
Scotland were desperately disappointing against Wales - how they missed Richie Gray - and Andy Robinson has duly wielded the axe. They will still need to improve massively though if they are to beat Ireland who will be smarting after a really sloppy performance against France.
The match was there for the taking until Gordon D'Arcy allowed Rougerie to run straight through him - he must blush every time he sees the replay - and I expect a backlash in Edinburgh.
Wales have already lost in Rome so they know a banana skin awaits but they were much improved against the Scots and although poor old James Hook gets shunted to centre he is at least in the front line, so I expect the Welsh backs to have too much firepower for the Italians. It looks as if the pre-tournament predictions will pan out after all - but don't bet on it.
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