By Gavin Mortimer
THE GREATEST challenge facing France on Saturday in Lille isn’t the Pumas – strong as they’ll be – but the French themselves. “We will see if we’re capable of stringing together two top quality performances,” said coach Philippe Saint-Andre whose only change to the side that beat Australia is the return of Yoann Maestri at lock in place of Jocelino Suta.
It’s a challenge that has proved too much for recent French sides. Take the 1999 World Cup, for example, when Les Bleus under Jean-Claude Skrela produced arguably the greatest comeback in Test match rugby, overturning a 14 point deficit against the All Blacks to triumph 43-31. Six days later in the final and the French were off-the-pace, slumping miserably to a 35-12 defeat to Australia.
They did were at it again four years later. Hammering Ireland in the quarter-final and then being humbled by England in the semi-final. Ditto 2007 when Bernard Laporte once again watched from afar as his boys stunned the All Blacks in the quarter-final and froze against England a week later.
Marc Lievremont wasn’t able to alter the mindset. Remember when France beat the then reigning world champions, South Africa, in Toulouse three years ago? It was the start of a wonderful new era, or so we were told; two weeks later France were stuffed 39-12 by the All Blacks in Paris. And let’s not forget last year’s World Cup when France somehow staggered into the final without ever stringing together two games of top-drawer rugby. Even the most one-eyed Frenchmen will admit – albeit when his tongue has been loosened by a pastis – that France would never have reached the final if Wales hadn’t had Sam Warburton sent off 17 minutes into their semi-final clash.
By all accounts, Saint-Andre has spent this week drumming into his players the necessity to maintain the intensity levels shown in the 33-6 win over Australia last week. Asked by French journalists what he thought of No8 Louis Picamoles’ performance against the Wallabies (which had much to commend it), Saint-Andre replied: “I’m not going to garland him with praise because when we do that he has a tendency to go to sleep the next match.”
Saint-Andre’s philosophy, learned during his time coaching in England with Gloucester and Sale, seems to be working. The buzzword this week in the French camp has been “la constance” – in words continuity and consistency. Picamoles has acknowledged his need to play with it, as has hooker Dimitri Szarzewski, while Frederic Michalak this week warned his teammates that there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Argentina are a completely different proposition to Australia, their threat lying not in pacy threequarters but hard, confrontational forwards led by the outstanding Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. Yet for all the strength of the Pumas’ pack, France on paper, should win. But rugby’s not played on paper, it’s played first and foremost in the head, as Saint-Andre knows only too well. “The big challenge is to try not to be French,” he said in announcing the XV to face Argentina, “and to play with the same intensity, the same ferocity on consecutive weeks.”
If France can do that, then the rest of the world might realty start to sit up and take notice.
Sarting XV: Brice Dulin; Wesley Fofana, Florian Fritz, Maxime Mermoz, Vincent Clerc; Frederic Michalak, Maxime Machenaud; Louis Picamoles, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Yannick Nyanga; Yoann Maestri, Pascal Pape (capt); Nicolas Mas, Dimitri Szarzewski, Yannick Forestier.
Replacements: Benjamin Kayser, Thomas Domingo, Vincent Debaty, Jocelino Suta, Damien Chouly, Morgan Parra, Francois Trinh-Duc