France can do it, just don't say 'dark horses', writes Ian Borthwick
The French language has no equivalent for the expression "dark horse". Which is probably just as well, as it would no doubt have become one of those tiresome cliches that we scribblers trot out every four years when Rugby World Cup comes around.
For Anglophones, however, it is a handy label when trying to pigeon-hole these French roosters. Given the bewildering variations in les Bleus' performance over the past few seasons, you never know what to expect. They were trounced 59-10 by Australia in Paris last November, and tumbled to an all-time low against Italy in this year's Six Nations, losing 22-21 in Rome. On the other hand, they beat the All Blacks in Dunedin in 2009, they won a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2010, and France is still the only Northern nation to have won a series in New Zealand (2-0 in 1994).
While their erratic results over the past two years leave much to be desired, the two build-up games against Ireland had a promising look. And history has shown they have a nasty tendency to produce major upsets at le Mondial. Sydney 1987, Twickenham 1999, Cardiff 2007... in World Cup lore, these are synonymous with France's uncanny ability to upset the apple-cart by taking out the tournament favourites.
It is difficult trying to identify the type of game Thierry Dusautoir and his men are attempting to play. At the core of the problem is the domestic competition and the priority given to the French clubs, at the expense of the national XV. The Top 14 may well be regarded as the premium club competition in world rugby, at least when you consider the list of big-name international players who make the move to France every year. Paradoxically, however, the Top 14 has evolved into a competition where teams play not so much to win, but to avoid defeat.
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"Rugby a la francaise is no longer but a figment of the imagination," Marc Lievremont said. But the former test flanker hopes to change all that, by unleashing his players with a style of game plan more akin to the French rugby of old. The kind of game, based on speed, skill, and inspiration, that stirs the soul. But given the limited access to his players, the style of play Lievremont has never yet been able to put in place.
What then will the French bring to the tournament? Up front, their scrum power is a given and when they are on song, they have one of the best lineouts in world rugby, with loose forwards Imanol Harinordoquy, Julien Bonnaire, and Fulgence Ouedraogo, not to mention skipper Dusautoir giving them a host of jumping options at the back.
In the backline, while Francois Trinh-Duc has developed into a truly world class first five-eighths, capable of marshalling his troops and controlling the game, expect also to see some fireworks from the likes of Maxime Medard, Cedric Heymans, Aurelien Rougerie and Maxime Mermoz. If they click, the French will once again bring their inimitable qualities of creativity and flamboyance to the World Cup. And if they do that, you can count on les Bleus to be more than just the "dark horses".
* Ian Borthwick is a rugby correspondent for L'Equipe, in Paris.