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Rugby World Cup final: France name unchanged side but tensions remain

October 20th, 2011 by · No Comments · Features


Marc Lièvremont has named an unchanged side to face New Zealand in Sunday’s final but France are still far from united

Marc Lievremont ponders the future

Marc Lièvremont has named an unchanged France XV to face New Zealand in the final of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, but as he and some of his players faced the press they managed to give the impression of a squad increasingly divided and lacking the signs of anything resembling the ésprit de corps that would normally be expected from a coach and his players four days before the biggest game of their lives.

Facing criticism from all quarters about the quality of his team’s play during the tournament, in which they lost pool matches to the All Blacks and Tonga before beating Wales’s 14 men by only a single point in the semi-final without getting close to scoring a try, Lièvremont declared: “If we have to win this match playing as we did against Wales, we’ll do so.”

Next question: would such a performance be enough to win the final? “Certainly not,” he replied.

Like his team, Lièvremont is a mass of contradictions. Yesterday he backtracked on his widely publicised criticisms of the players the day after the semi-final, when he described them as “spoilt brats” after a group of about half a dozen had defied his instructions not to go out and celebrate their narrow victory.

“I said those things in order to put pressure on them,” he said, “but when I read my comments in the newspapers, I realised that I should probably have kept quiet.”

His remarks are said to have upset the players more than anything else during the course of the campaign, as Lionel Nallet, one of the senior players and a former captain, made clear.

“I didn’t appreciate it at all,” the veteran lock said. “That’s just my opinion. We already knew that the week was going to be complicated enough and there was perhaps no reason to add to that pressure.”

The young centre Maxime Mermoz was more circumspect. “Of course one has to be honest,” he said. “There are things that you can take on board and things you don’t necessarily have to take on board, and then it’s up to the individual. It certainly didn’t change my mood that day.”

Trying to assess the mood of the French players has become one of the most popular pastimes in Auckland. Some are said to be angry, others calm. Respect for their head coach has almost vanished. As is traditional from France’s teams in World Cups, every day they are told of another unflattering front-page headline in L’Equipe and criticisms from former stars such as Serge Blanco and Pierre Villepreux.

There was a moment of tension during yesterday’s three-way press conference with Nallet, Mermoz and Aurélien Rougerie in the Crowne Plaza hotel, the squad’s base, when Rougerie accused the assembled journalists of failing to ask pertinent questions. Well, one replied, perhaps you could try asking one of your team-mates a pertinent question. Rougerie turned to Nallet. “How are you?” he said, prompting a small group of French reporters to get up and walk out.

“We’ve been massacred for some time,” Nallet said. “There were some comments that were true but it’s part of this whole atmosphere. But it’s not the end of the world. We’re trying to come together as a group.”

Lièvremont said he had no hesitation in plumping for an unchanged starting lineup, although he mentioned that the hooker William Servat, the scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili, the No8 Imanol Harinordoquy and the fly-half Morgan Parra were being treated for slight injuries. “But it was the same last week,” he said. “I expect them all to be there on Sunday.”

In the view of the flanker Julien Bonnaire, France have nothing to lose. “We can’t back down,” he said. “We know that we’re very far from being the favourites, given the level of our performance. We have a very small chance, and we need to take it.

“I think it’s clear that big mistakes were made. The mood of the team is a bit of a mixture. We’ve worked hard and done what we needed to do to get to this stage. There’s a lot of desire and a great deal of solidarity. Now we’re going to need a perfect match. The past is the past, the All Blacks are a team like any other, and we’ve got to put them under pressure. We’re going to have to tackle a lot. We can’t let them take control. We mustn’t be afraid of winning.”

His head coach was not sure that it was an advantage to be the underdogs. “Every time we play the All Blacks, they are favourites,” Lièvremont said. “But we’re in the final and I believe we will win.”

As a member of the side that astonished the world in 1999 by beating New Zealand in the semi-final with a explosion of attacking rugby but then subsided meekly to Australia in the final, he could not find a meaningful comparison between the two experiences.

“It’s very difficult,” he said. “But I do know that it often comes down to the small details. And the first thing I told my players when we got together was that they had to be prepared for the intensity of these matches.”

It is off the pitch, however, that the intensity of a World Cup has produced its most obvious effects. The players seem resentful, the coach chastened. Seuls contre tous – us against the world – is a phrase that cropped up more than once yesterday. There is simply no knowing how this will shape their performance on Sunday against an All Black team considered by their supporters to have the trophy already in their hands. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & ConditionsMore Feeds

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