France v Tonga, Rugby World Cup, October 1
Les Bleus look to end difficult week on a high
September 27, 2011
France head coach Marc Lievremont is feeling the strain at the moment © Getty Images
Just over a year ago, France's footballers rebelled against their manager midway through their World Cup campaign in South Africa. Are the nation's rugby players currently in the process of following suit?
There were rumblings of discontent before Les Bleus even arrived in New Zealand, with one report claiming that an unnamed player had claimed that 25 members of France's 30-strong squad were unhappy with head coach Marc Lievremont. That story was dismissed by all and sundry but, in light of the events of the past few weeks, it would not be surprising if there was serious unrest within the camp.
First, Dimitri Yachvili expressed his disappointment with Lievremont's decision to publicly criticism him and his team-mate Imanol Harinordoquy for their allegedly sub-standard displays in the team's tournament opener against Japan.
Then, Lievremont picked a slightly strange line-up for Saturday's pivotal pool clash with hosts New Zealand, with the most perplexing selection the positioning of Clermont Auvergne scrum-half Morgan Parra at fly-half. That, coupled with the omission of William Servat among others, prompted accusations that Lievremont had deliberately picked a 'B team' because he wanted to lose the game so that France would go into quarter-finals on the easier/northern hemisphere side of the draw.
That prompted a succession of heated exchanges between Lievremont and the French press pack, culminating in the coach telling one reporter to "go to hell with your question" after being asked after Saturday's defeat by the All Blacks if France could still win the World Cup.
Lievremont is clearly feeling the strain and that has only added weight to the rumours that he has lost the dressing room. Veteran lock Lionel Nallet claims the squad remains united behind their under-fire coach but the proof will be in the performance against Tonga this weekend.
France - Player to Watch: It's got to be Parra again, with Lievremont having decided to stick with the same half-back pairing which faced the All Blacks. Parra did not do a whole lot wrong against the Kiwis but he will have to produce a far more commanding display against the Tongans to justify Lievremont's unexpected decision to hand him the No.10 jersey.
France - Team News: Lievremont has decided to once again go with Parra alongside Yachvili in the half-backs. Elsewhere in the backline, Maxime Medard takes over at fullback from Damien Traille, who drops out of the 22, and that switch facilitates a recall for Alexis Palisson on the left wing. In the pack, William Servat returns at hooker in place of Dimitri Szarzewski, while Raphael Lakafia is preferred to Louis Picamoles at No.8.
Tonga - Player to Watch: Viliame Iongi has the ability to to trouble even the most battle hardened of defences if given the opportunity in broken field. With an open game hopefully in the offing, Iongi will look to get on the ball as much as possible.
Tonga - Team News: Flanker Finau Maka returns from a rib injury in one of four changes to the side that beat Japan 31-18 in their last Pool A outing. Prop Kisi Pulu also returns while inside centre Andrew Ma'ilei and winger Iongi have also been restored to the starting line-up.
Key Battle: Maka at seven will look to get the better of his opposite number Julien Bonnaire at the breakdown. With Maka effectively playing for pride and Bonnaire looking to nail down the openside berth, expect the battle to be ferocious.
Stats: Vincent Clerc is France's all-time RWC record try-scorer, his treble against Canada having taken his tally to nine, one more than Christophe Dominici
Trivia: France have never failed to get beyond the quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup
"I have been hearing stories, rumours about little uprisings by the players and a lot of nonsense like that. At the moment there is a very good atmosphere in our squad and we are all united with each other. "
""Whoever is playing, they have the French flair, they can beat anyone on their day. They can beat any team in the world, whether it's New Zealand or Australia, so for us we have to expect a really hard game."
Prediction: Tonga can, mathematically at least, still qualify for the last eight so they will give it their all and they showed enough in the second half of their opening-day clash with the All Blacks to suggest that they could trouble the French. However, even in this seemingly vulnerable state, Les Bleus should have just too much class for their Polynesian opponents. France to win but not without picking up a few bumps and bruises along the way.
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