Hugh Farrelly: 'Brave' French can soften Kiwis' cough
THERE has been a lot of talk about bravery this week. Wales were praised across the board for 'bravely' battling on after being reduced to 14 men in their World Cup semi-final defeat to France.
Their red-carded captain Sam Warburton was described as putting on a 'brave' face afterwards and his coach Warren Gatland was then lauded for his 'brave' admission that he considered a faked injury to introduce uncontested scrums before opting to uphold the spirit of the game.
What a load of poppycock.
The Welsh deserve credit for playing most of the rugby despite their numerical disadvantage but where was the bravery when it was most needed on 71 minutes?
Recycling the ball in the French '22', no one took on the individual responsibility of going for a potentially decisive drop goal. This was conveniently glossed over amid the acres of coverage afforded to Alain Rolland's decision to dismiss Warburton. Instead, the Irish referee became the pantomime villain ranged against Warburton's 'oh no he didn't' put-upon hero.
Rolland did his job, highlighting the dangers of the 'tip tackle' in the process, and has no case to answer -- Wales and Warburton have only themselves to blame for not making the final.
There is no reason to doubt the Welsh captain's assertion he did not set out to injure Vincent Clerc, nor can it be disputed that Warburton has a good disciplinary record and that the red card spoiled the semi-final as a contest. But these arguments are completely irrelevant.
Just as with eye-gouging, if you put yourself in that position, intentionally or accidentally, you suffer the consequences. Rolland's red card should not require any justification, but the knowledge that it could help prevent serious neck or spinal injuries by discouraging this form of tackling should be enough to stop the bleating.
France have been caught up in all this 'woe is Wales' tosh, with both their passage to the final and their claims on the trophy roundly ridiculed.
The French deserve to be in the final. Not because they have played the best rugby, or because they have had the most harmonious camp or best attitude but because they are there and it would be wonderful to see France upset the odds.
Since the machinations of 2005, when New Zealand were selected as hosts ahead of more deserving candidates, there has been a sense of this World Cup being a fait accompli. A New Zealand win is immediately diluted by the fact that, just as in 1987, they required the massive advantage of home soil to do so.
The greatest World Cup achievement to date was England's 2003 triumph in Australia, which included the requirement to beat the hosts in Sydney in the final. South Africans will tell you that their 1995 win was the greatest but that Springbok team would never have won had they not been hosts, and the 'Rainbow Nation' façade erected around Nelson Mandela does not alter that.
Everything at this World Cup is weighted in New Zealand's favour, from their precious pre-match haka, to a one-eyed media, vast supporter advantage and their Eden Park base. France spoiling the party would be sweet indeed.
There are a few kernels of optimism in this regard. There appears to be an air of complacency surrounding the New Zealand camp, emphasised by the primary school press performance of Ali and Sonny Bill Williams in midweek and nurtured by a fawning, myopic media and fan base.
The age-old assertion of France always having one big game in them arrives with baguettes and onions attached, but the stereotype is valid nonetheless and the French will not want to depart this tournament without producing one complete performance.
Then there is Imanol Harinordoquy. Footage of France training this week showed coach Marc Lievremont on the fringes while the Basque No 8 led the huddle and he's the leader this team needs. Harinordoquy has been one of the finest forwards of his generation and, in what is likely to be his final World Cup appearance, he will not go out tamely.
Harinordoquy gave the finest individual display it has been my privilege to witness when he inspired Biarritz to a Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Munster in San Sebastian last year. Forced to wear a face mask to protect his broken nose, the No 8 took a ferocious hammering and required repeated treatment but refused to depart until the job was done. Now that is bravery.