Jo Maso, the France team manager, thinks a ninth Six Nations Grand Slam today will provide an ideal springboard for the team's 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign. France, seeking their first Grand Slam since 2004, play England, the team who knocked them out of the last two World Cups, in the final match of the championship at the Stade de France.
"I have five Grand Slams to my name, one as a player in 1968 and four as team manager in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2004. I'm the record-holder in France," Maso said. "If I wish so hard that France win a ninth one on Saturday it's not to bring my personal record to six. It's because it will be a perfect launch pad for the World Cup." "It will ratify all the work done in two years by [coach] Marc (Lièvremont) and his assistants Emile [Ntamack] and Didier [Retiere].
"It will also give them time to carry on working without being under pressure for results. It will give confidence to the players, the young ones and the more experienced." Meanwhile, Lievremont has reacted angrily after being sent anonymous letters questioning Mathieu Bastareaud's right to play for the team because he does not sing the national anthem. Lievremont spoke out against the "hypocrisy and cheap nastiness" of the content, and condemned those "who are sending me letters concerning the fact that Mathieu Bastareaud does not sing the national anthem" and who "don't have the courage to sign their names".
The 21-year-old centre has been one of France's best players in the tournament and returns to the starting XV after being on the bench to rest an ankle injury in last weekend's game with Italy. France seem set to win the Six Nations title even if they lose to England, with Ireland needing to beat Scotland and make up 50 points on the French in points difference. Lewis Moody will captain England for the game after Steve Borthwick was ruled out yesterday with a knee injury.
Louis Deacon will replace Borthwick in the second row with Stade Francais lock Tom Palmer promoted to the bench. Ireland are treating their match against Scotland as a championship decider - even though it is unlikely to be anything of the sort. Victory over last-place and winless Scotland would still give Ireland the prestigious Triple Crown awarded for beating the other three British Isles sides.
Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam win was their first since 1948 and they have beaten all the other home unions only 10 times since the competition began in 1883, with gaps as long as 49 and 33 years between Triple Crowns. "We're playing Scotland in a one-off Test match which we see as a final," said the Ireland coach, Declan Kidney . "The Scots are known for ruining Irish parties and they'll want to do that once more."
Ireland need a 50-point swing in their favour against France along with an English victory to finish in first place, so Saturday's match is more about pride. Kidney has picked the same team for a third straight match ahead of Ireland's final Six Nations match at Croke Park before they return to their traditional Landsdowne Road home later this year. Italy yesterday suffered an injury blow ahead of today's game with Wales in Cardiff. Centre Andrea Masi was ruled out with a back injury and will be replaced by Clermont Auvergne's Gonzalo Canale.
Nick Mallett, the Italy coach, is already without lock Carlo Del Fava and flanker Paul Derbyshire and knows his team will finish bottom of the table should they lose and Scotland avoid defeat in Dublin. * With agencies