|Controversial Bastareaud has been recalled to the France squad ahead of their Scotland opener [AFP]|
Mathieu Bastareaud was recalled to France’s starting line-up for rugby union’s Six Nations opener against Scotland, as France find themselves narrow favourites in what looks to be the most open tournament for years.
The 21-year-old Stade Francais player lost his place in the team after making false claims he had been the victim of an attack in New Zealand last June before admitting he injured himself in a drunken fall in his hotel room.
Bastareaud’s actions caused a diplomatic stir and the player received a three-month suspended ban and community service.
Despite France occupying the position of bookies favourites, a reasonable argument can be made for any team other than Scotland or Italy to win the competition.
The French are hugely talented, if reliably erratic as ever, Ireland are unbeaten in more than a year, Wales have a team built around a core of British and Irish Lions, and England have an almost fully fit squad for the first time since Martin Johnson took over as team manager.
Italy were the only team Ireland beat by more than nine points in the Six Nations last year in winning their first Grand Slam since 1948, while runners-up England lost to the Irish and Welsh by a combined total of just nine points.
“It will be just as tight this year,” Johnson said.
“Anyone who predicts who will win the title is a brave guy.”
Those margins suggest the schedule could play a significant role.
Each team have five fixtures, so three sides every year – England, Scotland and Italy this time – only get to play twice at home.
France open with a tricky trip to Scotland, who will be desperate for victory since they only have two home matches in this year’s tournament.
But coach Marc Lievremont is already looking forward to the last round on March 20, when France host England in their third home game seeking to avenge last year’s 34-10 loss at Twickenham.
“England is always the match,” Lievremont said.
“And that is more so this season because of the huge slap in the face we got at Twickenham last year. Nothing worked for us that day: it was a disaster.
“Some losses you can make something out of, but not that England one.”
France host Ireland next before travelling to Wales and finishing games in Paris against Italy and England.
Defending champions Ireland are next in the bookmakers’ reckoning, with coach Declan Kidney set to rely on the same players that carried the country unbeaten through 2009.
Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton will sit out the opener against Italy on Saturday because of a leg injury, but Kidney can call upon all-time leading scorer Ronan O’Gara to play at No. 10.
His only injury concern is over blindside flanker Stephen Ferris, who damaged his knee playing for Ulster in the Heineken Cup against Bath 10 days ago. Leinster’s Kevin McLaughlin will make his debut in his stead, with Kidney hoping to have Ferris back next week for France.
Captain Brian O’Driscoll sounds resigned to losing at some point, but is still confident of taking the title.
“You try and build into a competition,” O’Driscoll said.
“You don’t win it in the first couple of weeks. This is all new ground to me but I won’t look at anything differently.
“You don’t retain anything: you give it back and you try to win it again.”
|Tait is a welcome return to Martin Johnson’s squad [GALLO/GETTY]|
Martin Johnson announced the most exciting backline of his tenure as England manager, signalling his intention to start the Six Nations with a bang against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday.
Johnson has recalled the mercurial Mathew Tait alongside fit-again Riki Flutey in a new-look centre partnership with Delon Armitage restored to fullback after he, like Flutey, missed the November internationals.
Danny Care is restored at scrumhalf ahead of Paul Hodgson and with number eight James Haskell and prop David Wilson recalled, the team shows six changes from that well beaten 19-6 by New Zealand just over two months ago.
The selection marks something of a change of emphasis for Johnson, who said he and his coaching team had been too prescriptive in previous matches and needed to give his backs more freedom.
Tait has 32 caps but only 15 as a starter as successive England coaches have picked and discarded him.
The Sale centre, who made a memorable debut against Wales as a teenager five years ago when he was twice spectacularly dumped on his back by Gavin Henson, has featured at wing and fullback since during an in-and-out career.
His eye for a break and silky running was seen at its best in the 2007 World Cup final when he set up Mark Cueto for the try that was ruled out by the video referee. Saturday, his 24th birthday, will represent only his second start since that Springbok defeat in Paris.
“It is good to get them back,” Johnson said of his returning players.
“With Riki and Delon, we picked them all through last year and they took their chance.
“It was a blow to lose Riki in the autumn. He has trained really well over the last 10 days and fitted right back in.”
The main area of concern is in the front row, where injuries to props Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery mean Tim Payne and David Wilson will start on Saturday against arguably the strongest front row in the tournament.
Still, the talent at Johnson’s disposal means England should be able to at least emulate last year’s tally of three wins.
But Wales are aiming to spoil England’s party in the opening match, which marks the 100th anniversary of the first international played at Twickenham.
The Lions front row of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones could put England under serious pressure and help deny the possession the likes of Tait need.
“You have really got to hit the ground running in this tournament,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said.
“If you start well, it builds momentum.
“If we get off to a good start, and then do well in our next two games at home, then we can have a really good Six Nations.”
Scotland beat Australia 9-8 in November but the Scots stumbled to a 9-6 loss against Argentina the following week, suggesting coach Andy Robinson still has work to do if his team is going to do more than finish above perennial no-hoper Italy.
Italy’s game continues to develop strongly, although they have still finished last seven times in 10 years.
“For Italy, success means being competitive against every other side,” coach Nick Mallett said.
“We want the defeats to be within 15-20 points. That’s where Italian rugby is at the moment and we have to improve on that.”