Fired up French have nose for Rugby World Cup battle

By David Leggat

Imanol Harinordoquy: 'This can be the match that makes the difference'. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Imanol Harinordoquy: 'This can be the match that makes the difference'. Photo / Mark Mitchell

If current form is your preferred guide, then it's England to advance to the Rugby World Cup semifinals for the third straight time tonight.

After all, they've gone 4-from-4 through pool play without being uniformly impressive, conceded just one try and have a strong record against France in knockout games at the cup, winning all three of those meetings.

France lost their last two pool A games, have been bombarded by allegations of internal feuding between coach and players, and seem way off the pace.

That means that should they win tonight, there will be plenty of shrugs, puffing out of the cheeks and "what else did you expect?"

This is France, and therefore events of the past four weeks are not the most reliable guide. Think now, not what's gone before, is the view of England coach Martin Johnson.

"These games are all in isolation. It doesn't matter what happened the week before. It's what you turn up with on the day," he said.

England will turn up with a strong, committed, well-drilled forward pack, a muscular defensive line, pace out back and wide in Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Mark Cueto, and dual kickers in Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood.

Don't expect England to run in a pile of tries; that's not their go. But they do make themselves hard to beat, and that's the name of this game.

And Johnson expects England to be tactically savvy in all aspects.

"If we get under pressure at the lineout and scrum, in trouble with the referee - all the variables that can happen - we need to be able to roll with them and find a way to win."

Should Wilkinson - nine successful shots from 20 attempts so far - remain unable to dig himself out of his goalkicking hole, his heir apparent, Flood, is on hand.

But France's assistant coach, former Argentine player Gonzalo Quesada, went in to bat for Wilkinson yesterday.

"You can see him trying to find solutions, he's not trying to run away from the responsibility.

"I am absolutely sure he will be back at his best level tomorrow. Guys like him are constructed for a big rendezvous like this," he said, with no need of a grammatical tidy-up.

Johnson insists pairing Wilkinson with Flood is no gamble, although the last time that combination started a test was 18 months ago.

Johnson the pragmatist knows England must be uniformly good all across the park.

"People talk about playing rugby as running around passing the ball to each other. But all facets of the game will need to be good - set piece, defence, kick-chase, getting out of our half."

He expects French pride to come storming out of the tunnel tonight, banishing the memory of a sloppy pool programme.

"They are different to the English. Their personality as a side is different," Johnson said. "We know they can underperform but we know they can produce games that are almost unstoppable, as we've seen in World Cups. They do have a wider range of performance levels.

"We've just got to try and take the game out of their hands. If you're dominating territory, dominating possession, it doesn't matter what they can do because we'll have the ball."

Should France have the scent of battle in their nostrils, and have sufficient ball for halfback Dimitri Yachvili to organise things, this could be a colossal contest.

France beat England 12-10 to win the Grand Slam last year; lost 17-9 at Twickenham this year.

It was all rather low-key at the final French press conference yesterday.

No table-thumping rhetoric from coach Marc Lievremont or captain Thierry Dusautoir. No English was spoken either, Dusautoir, who speaks it well, saying "non" to that.

The French know they've fallen well short so far. So what better time to put things right than against the opponents they most like to flatten?

"It's not easy to say sorry when you've failed, but we've failed," hooker William Servat said. "I don't think we will [tonight]."

The partnership of Yachvili and fellow halfback-turned-No 10 Morgan Parra earned praise from an unlikely quarter - Wilkinson, who rates them well up to the job of unlocking the talents around them.

"If you don't give them the respect they deserve you're in big trouble. Those guys have earned that respect many times over."

No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, whose partnership with his Biarritz clubmate Yachvili is seen as crucial for France, was blunt on the troubles of late.

"When you keep stirring the s***, you end up getting stuck in it. Let's stop talking about the past and move on," he said. "This can be the match that makes all the difference for us, for the supporters, for France."

Harinordoquy was in the team beaten in the last two cup semifinals. Enough, said the big Basque.

He used a restaurant analogy. When the English win they bring the bill to the French table. Now it's time for England to pick up l'addition.

FRANCE v ENGLAND
Eden Park, 8.30 tonight
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)

FRANCE
Maxime Medard
Vincent Clerc
Aurelien Rougerie
Maxime Mermoz
Alexis Palisson
Morgan Parra
Dimitri Yachvili
I. Harinordoquy
Julien Bonnaire
T. Dusautoir (c)
Lionel Nallet
Pascal Pape
Nicolas Mas
William Servat
JB Poux
Reserves: Dimitri Szarzewski, Fabien Barcella, Julien Pierre, Louis Picamoles, Francois Trinh-Duc, David Marty, Cedric Heymans.

ENGLAND
Ben Foden
Chris Ashton
Manu Tuilagi
Toby Flood
Mark Cueto
Jonny Wilkinson
Ben Youngs
Nick Easter
Lewis Moody (c)
Tom Croft
Tom Palmer
Louis Deacon
Dan Cole
Steve Thompson
Matt Stevens
Reserves: Dylan Hartley, Alex Corbisiero, Courtney Lawes, Simon Shaw, James Haskell, Richard Wigglesworth, Matt Banahan.

- NZ Herald

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 25 Nov 2014 15:08:29 Processing Time: 427ms