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French tighten ranks to avert World Cup disaster

France’s on and off-field performances at the Rugby World Cup have drawn comparisons to the debacle of the national football team in South Africa last year. National pride is on the line when Les Blues face England on Saturday.


France’s rugby squad wants to break the hex that has brought gloom to its Rugby World Cup campaign in New Zealand. The team’s confidence has been wrecked by a string of disappointing first-round showings, as well as off-the-pitch squabbling that has drawn comparisons to the national football team’s embarrassing showing at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa last year.

Les Bleus will be fighting to stay in the tournament, but also to defend national pride, when they face arch-rivals England in Saturday’s quarter-final in Auckland.

The atmosphere in the French camp was bad after an unimpressive win against Japan and a sound defeat to host and favourite New Zealand. However, the mood hit rock bottom after a shocking loss to Tonga on October 1.

The next day French coach Marc Lièvremont publicly chastised players for not rallying together after the match. “I would have liked to see everyone get together around a drink, to talk, to exchange… but even there I was disappointed,” a disheartened Lièvremont told a press conference. “I saw players who preferred to be with their agents.”

French number eight Imanol Harinordoquy hit back, saying Lièvremont’s open criticism was hurting the team even more. “There are things that have to stay in the room when you speak between a coach and his players,” Harinordoquy told reporters. “The problem is not what he said but that everybody knows it.”

The cold exchange between the French rugby coach and player was an unwelcome reminder of the schism that poisoned Les Bleus during the last football World Cup.

Last year the national football team became an international embarrassment for France. Locker room name calling, the expulsion of one player from the group, and the footballers’ refusal to attend one training session grabbed headlines around the world and led to the squad’s first-round exit.

This week, Lievremont had to face embarrassing questions from the press that compared him to Raymond Domenech – the former football coach that oversaw the South Africa debacle, and whose poor management of the crisis ended his career with the French Football Federation.

Not just any rival

Les Bleus match on Saturday will be the chance to prove that the team has regained its critical unity. Both players and coaching staff said that they had settled any remaining internal differences over drinks on Monday and hard-hitting training sessions on Monday and Wednesday.

Facing potential elimination, talk quickly centred on settling the score with England. ‘Les Rosbifs’, as the English are disparagingly called across the channel, kicked France out of the last two rugby World Cups in 2003 and 2007. “We have to keep in mind how physically prepared this England squad is,” coach Lievremont told Eurosport on Wednesday.

England has faced its own problems in New Zealand. Three players were reprimanded on Tuesday because of comments they made to a female hotel worker.

“[The French team] has had a lot of pressure from home, and we’ve had a lot of pressure on us for off-field stuff... so there’s going to be a lot of steam and someone’s going to give,” England wing Shontayne Hape told reporters on Wednesday.

Despite assurances from France that the team had risen above the recent acrimony, few doubted that the team’s reputation depended entirely on Saturday’s final score. “There's a lot of motivation, everyone wants to try and save our honour in this match,” French lock Lionel Nallet admitted on Wednesday. “Nallet added, We still have a right to believe.”

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