By Rob Douglas
Ah, les Francais… Bof. Where to begin: the World Cup hosts (for the most part); the reigning Six Nations Champions; Gallic flare; the double recent vanquishing of England at a canter; brilliant one minute, grossly incompetent the next; ‘that try’ by Saint-Andre in the Grand Slam decider at Twickenham in 1991; Sébastian ‘the Anaesthetist / Attila / Jesus / Rasputin / Hannibal Lecter Chabal, the unlikeliest of French sex symbols… Whoever you are, as a rugby fanatic or an interested neutral, the French team cannot fail to intrigue. But can they cope with the expectations of a country reaching fever pitch and inherit the Jules Rimet trophy from Les Rosbifs?
There are no shortages of stumbling blocks along the way, not least the French temperament. No-one doubts that virtually any French team of the last two decades has been capable of elevating their play to stratospheric levels above and beyond the reach of any other. At their best they are untouchable, as witnessed during the remarkable comeback which blew the All Blacks away in the semi-final at the 1999 World Cup, a match in which even the most blinkered of beret wearers had subconsciously written them off. Yet, in the final it would be flattering to describe their performance as mediocre, essentially handing the title to the less-fancied but far more composed Aussies in what should have been a classic encounter.
Four years ago they travelled Down Under more in hope than expectation and having never really got out of second gear throughout were found wanting in ferocious Sydney conditions by an England team and a certain young man’s boot when it came to the crunch of the last four. Are they capable of finally finding the winning formula and emulating the achievement of their oldest rivals thereby keeping the trophy in the Northern Hemisphere?
If not, it certainly won’t be for lack of strength in depth. Only New Zealand can boast similar competition in every position. Indeed, hypothetically if both France and the All Blacks were to enter two teams to this World Cup, it’s not inconceivable that all four teams (provided there were no injuries of course) would occupy the four semi-final berths. I don’t think that even Bernard Laporte, the arch-tinkerer who moves into President Sarkozy’s Cabinet as Secretary of State for Sport after the competition, knows his first choice starting XV.
The leadership and experience of Raphael Ibanez, Fabien Pelous and Serge Betsen forms the backbone of the pack and the team. Their settled front row is fearsome; they have an embarrassment of riches in the back row and the back three; Pierre Mignoni and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde both have pace and tactical nous at the base; any of the fly-halves in the squad can control a game well and release the flyers outside him; and in Yanick Jauzion and Damien Traille you have a centre axis both massive and majestic. And then you have Chabal. Immovable object, irresistible force – call him what you will, in a tight game with twenty minutes on the clock, fifteen exhausted opposition players will all endure a collective buttock clench as this primeval caveman joins the fray.
Pitted in Pool D, the ‘Group of Death’, perhaps we will see France’s true colours when they take the field against a spirited Argentine side more than capable of an upset. If they can successfully negotiate their way past the South Americans and a struggling Irish side, they will stroll to the semis, most likely to meet South Africa, or potentially England once again. Expect titanic clashes from here on in, but if Laporte’s last act as the longest serving coach in international rugby is to be a successful one, he must find the team combination which can carry the pressure of a nation and avoid the self-destruct button inherent in the French rugby-playing psyche.
A fantastic and very unpredictable competition lies ahead, and if ever that French cockerel is to rule the roost, now is the time.