France Facing Five Nations Jinx

PARIS -- France, boosted by the return of Thierry Lacroix, Olivier Roumat and Laurent Cabannes, opens the Five Nations' championship against England on Saturday with high hopes of ending an unwelcome jinx at Parc des Princes.

The French have not beaten England since 1988 and have lost their last four matches at home, a deeply wounding experience for a nation which loves beating the English at rugby.

On Saturday, though, France will start as favorite against an England side in the process of rebuilding after a disappointing World Cup last year.

Lacroix, Roumat and Cabannes were banned from test rugby after staying in South Africa following the World Cup to play provincial rugby.

Now they are restored to the national team with Lacroix playing in his club position of fly-half, a move which has the double benefit of keeping intact the exciting young center pairing of Richard Dourthe and Thomas Castaignede and giving France a superb goal-kicker.

Roumat returns at lock and the athletic Cabannes comes in at open-side flanker, giving France both additional mobility around the field and a stronger line-out.

France defeated England in the World Cup third place play-off and went on to share a two-test series with New Zealand.

But it knows it has been badly caught out before by England, especially in the 26-7 and 31-13 maulings in 1990 and 1992 respectively and is in no danger of underestimating the opposition.

"The Five Nations is the focus of the season for a player and for a trainer," said new French coach Jean-Claude Skrela. "And England are the team that has posed us the most problems in the last seven or eight years.

"We were able to reverse the trend in South Africa. Now it's up to us to show it was no fluke."

England comes to Paris without Rob Andrew, Dewi Morris and Brian Moore and captain Will Carling recognizes the going will not be easy.

"I have a lot of respect for the French. It's the biggest physical and mental challenge in the Five Nations and I love it," he said.

Coach Jack Rowell, bidding to put aside disappointing performances against South Africa and Western Samoa, has called on senior forwards Ben Clarke, Martin Johnson and Martin Bayfield to pull their weight in Paris and unsettle the French pack.

France has succumbed in the past by losing its discipline and giving away penalties under pressure and Rowell is in no mood to change a potentially winning tactic.

Ireland, which faces Scotland in Dublin on Saturday, has already responded positively to the coaching of New Zealander Murray Kidd and has beaten Fiji and the United States in its Five Nations build-up.

With a youthful Welsh team also demonstrating promise against Italy on Tuesday, there is suddenly added pressure on new Scottish captain Rob Wainwright to fill the void left by Gavin Hastings.

"We need to focus on the present," he said. "Everyone has huge respect for Gavin, but he has no relevance to this Five Nations campaign."