By Gavin Mortimer
DID YOU hear it then? That sound, shortly after the groans had ceased from the England and Wales camps. It was the sound of Gallic guffawing as they digested the draw for the Rugby World Cup 2015.
Because let’s be honest – and of course, with the greatest of respect to Ireland – France are already as good as in the quarter-final. In a pool that also contains Italy, and probably Romania, the French will have no trouble making it to the last eight. In the last twelve encounters between Ireland and France, Les Bleus have lost once. Included in their victories are two World Cup clashes, in 2003, when France romped to a 43-21 victory (having led 27-0 at half-time) and in 2007 when the Irish were humbled 25-3 at the Stade de France. When the two sides front up in 2015 it will be an Ireland sans the O Clan; O’Driscoll, O’Connell, D’Arcy, O’Callaghan and O’Gara.
France, on the other hand, under Philippe Saint-Andre, have already started clearing out the dead wood, axing the likes of ageing stars such as Aurelien Rougerie, Clermont Poitrenaud and Julien Bonnaire. In their place, as we saw in their triumvirate of autumn internationals is a new generations spearheaded by centre-cum-wing Wesley Fofana, scrum-half Maxime Machenaud and full-back Brice Dulin.
In fact the draw couldn’t have been better for France. Ireland and Italy will both offer them physical challenges that they’ll treat with respect, matches that the French will win but which will provide them with enough robust rugby to allow them to iron out any flaws in their performance before the serious stuff starts in the quarter-final.
Obviously that wasn’t the message coming from the French camp on Tuesday (though messages on French rugby forums are laced with unbridled glee). Toulouse flanker Yannick Nyanga called the draw “complicated…I don’t know if we should be satisfied.” His back-row buddy, Fulgence Ouedraogo, was similarly on-message, saying: “Ireland had a great result against Argentina and the Italians are tough opponents, as they showed against Australia in November.”
As for the coach himself, Philippe Saint-Andre is too wily an operator to be caught off-guard by a reporter. Asked if he thought it was a good draw, he replied: “If you want to be world champions, you have to beat all the nations. It’s true that if you look at Pool A with Australia, England and Wales, it’s a real Pool of Death…we know our opponents very well and we’ll be expecting difficult matches. Ireland drew with us at the Stade de France [in the 2012 Six Nations] while Italy are improving season by season.”
The incentive for Saint-Andre to finish top of Pool D is that in doing so they’ll play the runners-up from Pool C, likely to be Argentina. Finish second in D and almost certainly it’s a confrontation with the winners of C – the All Blacks. Though France have beaten New Zealand in two of the last three World Cups (1999 and 2007), Saint-Andre would rather avoid the world champions if at all possible. “The winners will probably avoid the New Zealanders in the quarter-final…it would be worth finishing first.”
Such is the structure of the draw for the RWC 2015 that if results work out France could face England in the semi-final. How does that grab Saint-Andre? “I would like to be in the semi-final against England at Twickenahm!” he said, laughing, before turning to the here and now. “We’ve got a very difficult year in 2013 with three of our Six Nations’ matches away and then a three-Test tour to New Zealand against the best side in the world. We must continue to progress because we know that to be world champions one has to go towards an exceptional level of excellence.”
Of course a lot could still happen between now and the 2015 World Cup. Perhaps O’Driscoll and O’Connell won’t retire. Then again, perhaps France will get even better.