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If the group stages go the way many expect, France are likely to meet New Zealand in the quarter-finals. And when Les Bleus collide with the All Blacks in the knock-out phase of a World Cup, stars can fall from the sky.
That, at least, is the romantics’ view. No one will ever be able to forget the incredible French comeback in the 1999 semi-final when, in danger of being steamrollered after two tries from New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu, France played the kind of irrepressible rugby the side is famous for. They won 43-31 in a blur of illusionist off-loads, fly-paper handling and outrageous opportunism.
Another odds-defying victory followed in 2007, when the French won the quarter-final against the All Blacks, this time squeezing through a victory — admittedly amid a series of controversial refereeing decisions — of 20-18.
It is the kind of spectacle the French love to pull out of the hat, and a performance they often save for the toughest matches. They established themselves as World Cup game-changers back in the first tournament in 1987, during the semi-final. A minute-long move of utter chaos led to full-back Serge Blanco diving over in the left-hand corner and putting the co-hosts Australia out of the competition.
In fact, apart from England, France have the best World Cup record of the northern hemisphere teams. They were finalists in 1987, 1999 and 2011, when they lost 8-7 to New Zealand — a match they could and should have won. Moreover, in 2011 they got there after a terrible group stage that saw them walloped by the All Blacks, beaten by Tonga, and undergoing a full-blown revolt against coach Marc Lièvremont.
The ability to conjure unstoppable performances when all seems lost means France are now universally referred to as “it all depends which France turn up” — one of the most overused clichés in rugby after “Gallic flair”. But where such unpredictability once meant there was a brilliant team beneath all the dysfunction on and off the pitch, the fear in 2015 is that we can be almost sure which France will turn up — and it will probably not be good.
Hired after the 2011 final, head coach Philippe Saint-André has had a miserable time. In 2012, 2014 and 2015 Les Bleus finished fourth in the Six Nations, hitting rock bottom in 2013, when they finished last. Under PSA (as he is known at home) France have won 15 out of 37 matches, the worst record of any French coach.
Last August, France went to Australia and were thrashed 3-0 in the Test series, conceding 95 points, though they avenged themselves the following November with a 29-26 win at the Stade de France. In this year’s Six Nations, France scored 103 points but let through 101. Theyscored nine tries but conceded the same number — and of the tries they did score, five came against England, who were flinging the ball about in a desperate search for a championship victory on points.
Apart from the habitual dispatching of Scotland, the only other French triumph was a dreary match that secured a 29-0 victory against Italy. Saint-André nevertheless declared the result “a great win”.
There is one comfort for French rugby fans who would rather their side went out in a blaze of glory than huffing and puffing its way to an inevitable hiding by the All Blacks: PSA will quit after the World Cup. His replacement is the Toulouse coach Guy Novès, who has a reputation for the free-flowing, aggressive rugby fans hunger for.
So the signs for France are not good. In Pool D, they will surely thrash Canada and Romania, but the result against Italy is by no means certain. The French could end up needing victory in the last game of the group against Ireland, this year’s Six Nations champions. No one would put money on that happening.
Yet the hope for something miraculous refuses to die. Saint-André has promised a surprise come September, and has several players who could produce one. It is easily forgotten, but in the splendid mayhem that gave Les Bleus their 1999 defeat of the New Zealanders, it was rumbling forward power that gave the backs the space to weave their magic. And PSA certainly believes in rumbling forward power.
In the forwards, captain Thierry Dusautoir, locks Yoann Maestri and Pascal Papé, and the front row that started against England in the Six Nations — props Nicolas Mas and Vincent Debaty plus hooker Guilhelm Guirado — are among those who look set to play a prominent role in the World Cup campaign. Number eight Louis Picamoles, returning after illness, is reported to have impressed mightily at France’s pre-tournament training camp. Indeed, French observers say the squad will be the strongest and fittest ever to grace a Would Cup after PSA’s intensive regime.
In the backs, by contrast, it is one thing to predict who will make the final squad but quite another to know who will start against Italy. There is plenty of pace, talent and competition among the centres and the back three, ranging from the rapier that is Wesley Fofana to the human battering ram of Mathieu Bastareaud. But France’s apparently endless problems at number 10 simply will not go away. Saint-André has gone through half a dozen fly-halves in his time and has apparently not managed to find one he really likes.
One of them, Jules Plisson — you may remember him as being on the wrong end of a Courtney Lawes tackle in the Six Nations — was omitted from the training squad because the French Rugby Federation’s agreement with France’s clubs limits Saint-André to 36 players, which some saw as a neat encapsulation of the power the clubs have over the national side.
Indeed, many blame France’s rich and powerful clubs for the national side’s woes. Not only are they reluctant to release players for international duty, they also have a penchant for handing large salaries to star foreigners, rather than nurturing domestic talent.
Whatever the cause of the malaise, a team in which no player managed more than one try in the Six Nations needs to rediscover its scoring instincts. It is, of course, possible that they will top their group, beat Argentina in the quarters and ride the wave all the way to the final. But for now it is hard to believe that the right France will appear — and find the attacking spirit within.