All eyes on France's little Rugby World Cup talisman

By David Leggat

France's Dimitri Yachvili still has heavy bruising on a thigh after the quarter-final win over England at the weekend. Photo / Richard Robinson
France's Dimitri Yachvili still has heavy bruising on a thigh after the quarter-final win over England at the weekend. Photo / Richard Robinson

Ask any Frenchman which player his national side could least afford to lose before this weekend's World Cup semifinals and Dimitri Yachvili would be at, or near, the top of all lists.

And so it figures that the little halfback, goalkicker, conductor and talisman is the player attracting most interest from the injury-watchers before Saturday night's match against Wales at Eden Park.

The 31-year-old Biarritz player has heavy bruising on a thigh after the quarter-final win over England. Yachvili will take things easy until at least tomorrow, but coach Marc Lievremont is confident he will be able to take the same XV into the semifinal.

"He will play," Lievremont said. "I would not have hesitated to change the team if I thought another one was better."

That said, Lievremont has two players, flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo and uncapped utility back Jean Marc Doussain, standing by.

Others carrying bangs and bruises include two of their three impressive loose forwards, man of the match against England Imanol Harinordoquy and Julien Bonnaire.

Hooker William Servat has an ongoing knee problem, but Yachvili was the focus of most attention yesterday. The question may not be whether he will start, but how far he will last into what should be a physically taxing contest.

Injuries permitting, you would imagine the selection was pretty straightforward for Lievremont - who now sports a sharp new haircut atop the moustache which arrived after what may come to be seen as France's galvanising moment of this Cup, the humiliating loss to Tonga in their final pool game, 10 days ago.

After all, apart from some wonky handling moments, what was not to like about the England win; a substantial raising of the spirit, work ethic and general quality after a desperately mediocre collection of performances in pool play.

The trick for France is to produce a similarly high-octane display against Wales and then again in the final, should they win their fourth straight international against the Welsh.

Achieving a significant high once in a World Cup is one thing; putting together a body of top-quality work quite another, and that has long been a challenge for France.

"No generation of French teams have been able to overcome this problem," Lievremont said.

"It is a huge issue when you have such a big win [over England] behind you. But you need to come together, be committed and that's the challenge I've set my team this week."

Having been asked where the French were mentally this week after the England win, Lievremont acknowledged there was a cultural aspect to consider in the leadup to the semifinal.

"We are Latin and Anglo Saxons are slightly more pragmatic than us," he said. "What we need is to get more stability. The semifinals is a very big deal and I've been happy with the performance of my players against England.

"After that last match there was no extreme euphoria. The players started focusing on the rest of the tournament, and we're going to need to keep concentrating and remain aggressive."

There seems to be a single sheet from which all French voices are singing when it comes to the threat posed by Wales.

"Wales have got faith in themselves. It's going to be a huge match," reserve hooker Dimitri Szarzewski said.

"The way Wales started the tournament [narrowly losing to South Africa], they have been very strong from the beginning," added fullback Maxime Medard.

As for big centre Aurelien Rougerie, "Wales have a disconcerting fluidity about them."

Those who like their French teams to be in a state of anxiety, with a dollop of rumbling discontent bubbling close to the surface, would have been disappointed yesterday.

There seems a nice layer of harmony coming out of the camp. What a difference a win makes.

- NZ Herald

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