The selection for this weekend’s match against Wales represents one of the rarest occasions in French rugby; an unchanged team. The numerical facts behind Marc Lievremont’s tinkering of his side during his four year reign are staggering, however following the triumph over England last week, the congealing effect of that battle has brought France back together.
According to the Guardian, one French journalist was quoted describing France’s chaos theory as their best asset, with Les Bleus being “only at peace when they are at war.” Coincidentally, France have seemed ominously calm all week. The revolution has been quashed, the French squad having kissed and made up, at least on the surface. This doesn’t mean have been knocking back the red and singing Les Marseilles. Instead, they seem steely, cold. Determind. Frankly, it could not get any worse after the defeat to Tonga at the back end of the pool stages. Yet now, remarkably, France could be in the World Cup final despite having lost twice in this tournament.
The Welsh defence so far has suffocated teams out of matches, blitzing and hammering them backwards and into the ground. It will need to be the same against a French side full of slippery runners. Conrad Smith may go by the nickname of “Snake” universally, but Vincent Clerc could easily fit that bill. They even have their own Wolverine at full back, with Maxime Médard capable of the impossible on his day.
It will be up to the forwards to put France in the right positions. Thierry Dusautoir will hunt whoever is in possession, James Hook his primary target. He has been French captain during the most turbulent of times, the rout by Australia at home, the indignity of losing to Italy and Tonga, and yet his leadership has never been openly questioned. So much has been made of talismanic flankers at the breakdown in this tournament; Sam Warburton, Richie McCaw, David Pocock. France have their own superstar in that respect too.
If France are to defeat Wales, then it will be down to Dimitri Yachvili and Morgan Parra. Lievremont, whose transformation into Inspector Clouseau could be credited for the French revival, has persisted with the Clermont scrum-half at number 10, in the most radical of selections that may well pay off eventually but not immediately as he may have hoped. Their boots in the past have found the tightest of corners, and if they cannot go through Wales as expected then they will have to go over them. Yachvili’s boot is one of the deadliest around. No wonder the whole of France was praying he would be passed fit. Les Bleus have become accustomed to playing with one petit general whilst searching for a fly-half to go alongside him. On Saturday, they will have two.
Their main aims in attack will be to try and rule the skies at the lineout, an area where Pascal Papé and Imanol Harinordoquy were excellent last week. If they can rattle Wales here, then their chances will increase. In a game that no one expected France to reach after the group stages, they may well start as underdogs. There is no side more lethal when written off than the French. Expect the unexpected.
by Ben Coles