It is one of the oldest clichés in Rugby, and yet even today you still do not know which French team will turn up on match day. For this reason, with an inexperienced fly-half and on the back of arguably their worst defeat in history, Les Bleus remain a threat to England’s chances of progressing to the semi-finals. England supporters may feel aggrieved that at times their side does not play to it’s potential, or seems to leak constant stories of discrepancies much to the embarrassment of everyone from the coach to the supporters. But imagine trying to back the French.
The main reason why France can not be ruled out is mainly down to the quality of their players named in the French XV for Saturday morning. The return of William Servat and Nicolas Mas is a big boost to a French scrum that has struggled for consistency throughout this tournament. On top of that, Servat is far away the best hooker in France, the Toulouse number two’s experience trumping his age. In addition, the return of action man Imanol Harinordoquy at number eight is long overdue. The Basque beast’s physicality will be taken up a couple of notches given his public declaration in the past of his loathing of the English.
Another boost has been the selection of Aurélien Rougerie, with the initial fear of him having suffered a shoulder dislocation against Tonga proving untrue. Such a devastating strike runner, Manu Tuilagi so far has tackled everything in front of him down the 13 channel, but no one as devastating as the Clermont captain. If he and his Catalan counterpart Maxime Mermoz can combine fluidly then England will have their work cut out. And that’s all before the ball gets out wide to Vincent Clerc, Alexis Palisson and Maxime Médard.
With regards to Morgan Parra, a so far crumbling experiment in whom Lievremont is keeping his faith at the risk of his reputation, if he is going to show that he really can command the fly-half position, Saturday would be a good time to start. I have little doubt that he is capable of playing 10, in the same mould as Jean-Baptiste Elissade used to switch between positions for both Toulouse and France during his career. He has the handling and kicking game to play there, and his defence for a small man is good. Against the big running of loose forwards and centres in both All Black and Tongan shirts however, he has struggled to front up, defending a channel that is naturally alien to him.
Relations within the French camp may have been petty, with head coach and leading players as much to blame as each other, but the moment when Marc Lievremont announced that his desire to have a beer with his players had fallen on death ears, France’s World Cup campaign sounded more like the setting of a 1950s film noir masterpiece, Lievremont propping up the bar on his own in black and white with no one beside him. As the updates and press conferences have progressed this week, with all parties coming out and proclaiming the divisions are non-existent, France are beginning to resemble a squad once again. What’s more, all of the hurt, shame and acrimony of the last four weeks will be forgotten instantly if France beat England. Never have Les Bleus had so much to prove.
Lastly, Parra and Dimitri Yachvili are drop goal specialists. Let’s hope England have been working on their discipline.
by Ben Coles