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Premiership Rugby

Preview – England v France

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

There was little between the two sides during last weekend's opening gambit of this twin-pronged rugby fork as Les Bleus claimed a 17-16 win under the lights at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, and despite the result favouring the French, the match was almost as tight as the extraordinary figure-hugging shirts displayed by both teams that night on the Mediterranean coast.

Despite the fact that some English fans might shrug off that defeat with little more than a brief frown and hide it in the same "we were only fielding a second team" draw used by New Zealand at Twickenham in November, it was still a loss all the same.

Of the team which started that match, only four will run out at Twickenham in a more familiar-looking line-up, including the late addition of wing Iain Balshaw for the injured Dan Luger, who at least has not suffered the same fate as fly-half Alex King, who will miss the World Cup after his body gave way.

While Saturday may be the immediate focus for the 'Men in White', the announcement of coach Clive Woodward's 30-man squad for the Rugby World Cup on Monday will be weighing on the minds of a few of those on show at Twickenham.

Starts for the likes of No.8 Martin Corry, centre Stuart Abbott, loosehead prop Trevor Woodman and scrum-half Kyran Bracken give them a fighting chance of squeezing their way on to the plane for Australia.

And Woodward, in his side's only home game of the warm-up schedule, has dusted off his best china and laid the Twickenham table with his meatiest of morsels, with captain Martin Johnson, fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, wing Jason Robinson and centre Will Greenwood among those to be taken out of mothballs after their June heroics in conquering the All Blacks and the Wallabies south of the equator.

But while England have wielded their sharpest swords for this outing, France go into the game with a distinct 'second-string' feel about their team.

Absent are the familiar names of captain Fabien Galthié, lock Fabien Pelous, fly-half Frédéric Michalak and back row Olivier Magne – all of whom brought a valiant and capable demeanour to the often frustratingly hot-and-cold Gallic game last week.

Instead, fringe figures such as fly-half Gérald Merceron, scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili and centre Brian Liebenberg all start in the backs, while a workman-like back row of Christian Labit, Patrick Tabacco and Sebastien Chabal will lack the classy touches of Rolls Royces like Imanol Harinordoquy, Serge Betsen and the ever-energetic Magne.

Olivier Brouzet and David Auradou show the depths to which the French can look for competent second rowers in the absence of Pelous and the improving Jerome Thion, and while a front row of Jean-Baptiste Poux, Raphael Ibanez and Olivier Milloud hardly wreaks of slapstick failure, it is still short of the class that a Pieter de Villiers or a Jean-Jacques Crenca would bring.

The decision of coach Bernard Laporte to name his 30-man World Cup squad so early in the day may have robbed the watching masses of the spectacle of a cut-and-thrust selection battle in the French camp, but after such a disastrous tour of Argentina and New Zealand in June, there is a realistic chance that a good showing from one of Saturday's starters could well force the coach's hand when it comes to choosing his starting XV Down Under.

But throw into the equation the fact that England have not been beaten at their Twickenham citadel since the 1999 World Cup pool loss to New Zealand, and the French prospects of victory look about as appetising as Jason Leonard or Dorian West in their new skin-tight day-glo white playing shirts.

Woodward, while keeping things in perspective ahead of the World Cup, said of this run-out: "With the team we've got out and our record at Twickenham we obviously want to win the game on Saturday.

"We're playing France, we've got a full house and we've got a damn good side out. I think the worry is these guys are so looking forward to playing, and are a little over-anxious about playing. I'm disappointed about a couple of guys not playing – [Phil] Vickery and [Lawrence] Dallaglio have got minor injuries.

"Outside of that we've got a good side. It's a big night for a couple of  players who definitely haven't made the final 30 yet. Stuart Abbott, it's a huge opportunity for him, and Iain Balshaw will definitely get a run.

"So it's a massive night and it's interesting talking to these players – the Johnsons and Wilkinsons – they need a game and they need to make sure that they are in good shape in preparation for the World Cup. It is a big night and one we want to win, but England will go to the World Cup with confidence whatever happens on Saturday night."

For France, even their coach might well accept that a gutsy performance against the world's top-ranked side would be regarded as a decent day at the office, and with last week's Marseille triumph still in the memory bank, in statistical terms the worst that can happen from this 'series' is for the English to draw level.

Players to watch:

For England: Another big game for Leicester Tigers back rower Martin Corry could just be enough to squeeze the versatile big man on to the plane for Australia. Despite being largely a fringe figure in the Woodward regime, Corry rarely lets his country down, and his physical approach gives a raw edge to the pack.

For France: A first Test start for centre Brian Liebenberg sees the Stade Francais big-hitter get a run in midfield after coming on in the last two internationals – his charge-down of Paul Grayson's late drop-goal in Marseille last week having arguably saved the day. A muscular man with a booming boot, the rugby world eagerly awaits seeing whether the South African-born player can make the step up to the big stage in the continual absence of the injured Tony Marsh.

Head to head: Jonny Wilkinson (England) v Gérald Merceron (France): England's chief weapon gets dusted off and put on show for a pre-World Cup run-out after being spared outings in Cardiff and Marseille, and the main worry over the ever-trusty Newcastle pivot will not be the standard of his play – which is always impeccable – rather the state in which he ends the match. Should he come through this unscathed, England as a nation will breathe a collective sigh of relief ahead of the World Cup. In contrast, French starter Gérald Merceron's game is all about proving himself after his wayward boot saw him dropped during the Six Nations. The Montferrand man may be behind Frédéric Michalak in the pecking order, but a good display here would bolster his erratic confidence.

Recent Results:2003: In Marseille: France won 17-162003: In London: England won 25-172002: In Paris: France won 20-152001: In London: England won 49-192000: In Paris: England won 15-9

Prediction: A one-point loss in Marseille last week for a below-strength England team may have put a blot on their copybook, but there will hardly have been hurried crisis management going on in the corridors of Twickenham after that tight defeat to a strong and potent French outfit. This time, with guns blazing, and against a weakened French team, expect an initially confined game to come alive in the second half, with a creative England winning by around two tries and a couple of penalties.Zurich Computer Prediction: England by 15 points.Planet Rugby Prediction: England by 19 points.

The teams:

England: 15 Jason Robinson, 14 Iain Balshaw, 13 Stuart Abbott, 12 Will Greenwood, 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Kyran Bracken, 8 Martin Corry, 7 Neil Back, 6 Richard Hill, 5 Ben Kay, 4 Martin Johnson (captain), 3 Julian White, 2 Steve Thompson, 1 Trevor Woodman.Replacements: 16 Dorian West, 17 Jason Leonard, 18 Simon Shaw, 19 Lewis Moody, 20 Matt Dawson, 21 Paul Grayson, 22 Josh Lewsey.

France: 15 Clément Poitrenaud, 14 Xavier Garbajosa, 13 Yannick Jauzion, 12 Brian Liebenberg, 11 Christophe Dominici, 10 Gérald Merceron, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Christian Labit, 7 Patrick Tabacco, 6 Sébastien Chabal, 5 Olivier Brouzet, 4 David Auradou, 3 Jean-Baptiste Poux, 2 Raphael Ibanez (captain), 1 Olivier Milloud.Replacements: 16 Yannick Bru, 17 Sylvain Marconnet, 18 Jerome Thion, 19 Imanol Harinordoquy, 20 Oliver Magne, 21 Frédéric Michalak, 22 Aurélien Rougerie.

Date: Saturday, September 6, 2003Kick-off: 18.00 (17.00 GMT, 19.00 France)Venue: Twickenham, LondonConditions: Sunny, cloudy patches, 19°C Referee: Nigel Williams (Wales)Touch judges: Alan Lewis (Ireland), Hugh Watkins (Wales)Television Match Official: Donal Courtney (Ireland)

By Mark Smith


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