Toulouse spirit key to France having chance
A week that started with France being dubbed the worst team to play in a World Cup final ended with an attempt to portray Les Bleus as a side with a latent violent tendency.
'Beware the filth of the French', screamed a headline on Friday, above an article on past excesses.
That prompted an official complaint from the French ambassador to New Zealand, and, the following day, it was claimed France were scheming to get New Zealand captain Richie McCaw off the field by stamping on his bad foot.
It was one way of building up a game that is seen by the media here as a non-contest. Small wonder Marc Lievremont, in his final pre-match media conference yesterday as the France coach, sighed that the end for him could not come soon enough. "That is a good idea, I will have to tell the players," said the idiosyncratic Lievremont when asked about the veracity of the McCaw plot. "This France team is one of the most disciplined, if not the most disciplined, team in the competition."
Lievremont, who had earlier in the week called his players "spoiled brats" for celebrating the semi-final victory over Wales with something stronger than an energy drink, the latest in a series of attacks on the behaviour of his charges, stunned his audience by saying: "It is not possible to criticise the players. They have been respectful." Even the normally impassive France captain, Thierry Dusautoir, sitting next to his coach, raised a smile.
If France do win the World Cup this morning, the record of the trophy never being won by a side that had lost one of its group matches would be intact. Les Bleus were beaten by the All Blacks and Tonga, finishing second in their group because Tonga, four days after playing New Zealand in the opening match of the tournament, conceded two late tries to Canada and lost a match they should have won.
France have been written off as a dysfunctional side, as they were in 1999, when they met New Zealand in the semi-final at Twickenham. "My All Blacks had thumped them by some 50 points in the build-up to the tournament and had a solid run to the semi-finals, whereas they had been very scrappy," said the former New Zealand captain Taine Randell.
"It is still painful to recall what happened that day. When I spoke to their captain, Raphael Ibanez, afterwards, he said how they had used all the pre-match media against them as motivation and that is why I am worried when I hear this France team being written off as the worst to make a final. We must beware of their dangerous inconsistency."
The last team to defeat the All Blacks in the World Cup were France in 2007.
The last side to down New Zealand at Eden Park, the scene of today's final, were France in 1994.
They have the best record, aside from the hosts, of any side at the ground, with a 42 per cent success rate. If current form suggests a blow-out, history invites caution.
"We will give our all on the day," said Dusautoir. "I am very proud of the team and the path we have followed quietly [in] this World Cup, and that includes Tonga. There were a number of comments at the time, but, emotionally, we are in a different place now. We have displayed great strength and, with one match left, we need to show ourselves."
Which France will show up in the final? They have resembled Biarritz so far, not least because it is the club of their two most influential players, the scrumhalf, Dimitri Yachvili, and the No 8, Imanol Harinordoquy; keeping it tight and kicking to the corners, a strategy that is likely to achieve no more than limiting the margin of defeat against the All Blacks.
France need to be more like Toulouse, the club with the greatest representation of players in the side, six. Three of their three-quarters did not carry the ball one centimetre against Wales and the vast majority of the 55 passes they made that day were from Yachvili to his half-back partner, Morgan Parra, who invariably put boot to ball.
When Lievremont took over as coach four years ago, he vowed to rekindle French flair after the stultifying semi-final defeat to England at the Stade de France, but he quickly found his ambition dulled by a constant battle with the clubs in the Top 14.
France is now the one major country where there is no agreement between club and country over the management of national squad players. When Lievremont called up the Toulouse scrumhalf, Jean-Marc Doussain, into the squad last month, he wanted him to arrive before the group match against Canada, but the club, backed by the French Rugby Federation, refused to release him until they had played a league match against Biarritz.
Lievremont has been worn down by a system he believes works to the detriment of Les Bleus.
And so his players will not only have to defy form, logic and the hopes of a nation that has suffered 20 years of World Cup heartache to produce the biggest shock in a final, they will have to find strength from within to turn New Zealand into the land of the long black cloud.
"It is up to them now," said Lievremont. "I am feeling relaxed and contented, appreciating the moment. I expect to wake up with a hangover on Monday."
Sunday Indo Sport