France target home win
August 22, 2007
"France's half-backs epitomise the debate as to whether Laporte is blessed with options or cursed by indecision." Huw Richards reports
Even when the tournament has taken place elsewhere, the road to winning the World Cup has usually led via France.
While the French have still to win the trophy they've been eliminated in four out of five tournaments by the eventual winners, the sole exception in 1991 when they were outfought by eventual finalists England in a brutal Parc des Princes quarter-final.
In consequence, they have rarely returned home to howls of execration. Their semi-final exit last time out after looking the tournament's form horse in earlier rounds may have disappointed, but was enough to satisfy both public and Federation, earning Bernard Laporte another four-year term of office.
This time, though, expectation will be higher. Laporte will do little for the ratings of his new bosses, President Nicolas Sarkozy and Premier Francois Fillon, in his next post as Sports and Youth Minister unless he has first, at the very least, delivered France to the final on October 20th.
If they do get there, the other teams will hardly be able to complain that the tournament has been set up for the hosts. France's draw could hardly have been more brutal, landing them in a group which includes the three best teams outside the Tri-Nations.
While they should be the strongest of that trio, there is no margin for error - and the punishment for any failure would be severe.
Defeats by both Argentina and Ireland would mean an immediate exit. One loss would not simply deprive them of the home advantage they are otherwise guaranteed, but pitch them against the All Blacks in Cardiff.
Argentina, first up on Opening Day, may be the greater worry. Argentina have dominated recent meetings, winning four of the last five and taking France's all-time unbeaten record in Marseilles three years ago.
A much tougher proposition than the team who were opening day opponents for Wales in 1999 and Australia in 2003, they're also comfortable with France and French conditions, with half their team playing their club rugby there.
Get through that and France will be fairly confident of seeing off Ireland after four consecutive victories in the match that usually decides the Six Nations title.
Top the group and they'll be still more confident of seeing off Italy or Scotland in a Paris quarter-final. If the semis will invariably produce a tougher challenge, by then the patriotic fervour already evident in unexpectedly large crowds watching their training sessions should have become a wave capable of propelling them into the final.
France can also call upon greater depth than any competitor other, possibly, than New Zealand. They won the Six Nations while rotating their squad to the point of dizziness.
The potential downside of such riches is that it that it makes deciding what is your best side rather more difficult and French critics remain divided over whether Laporte has been cannily testing out combinations or thrashing around hopefully.
In seeking French rugby's equivalent of Fermat's Theorem - the formula that balances the festive and the physical in a manner that accentuates both - he has mixed in more force de frappe than panache.
But as with Woodward's England in 2003, a team tending to play grindingly physical rugby will also have the option of a more fluid style, meaning opponents must reckon with that possibility.
Losing Sylvain Marconnet is a brutal blow, but France's front five will still be ferociously competitive, as well as providing the team's leadership through the astute eloquence of Raphael Ibanez and the Martin Johnson-like presence of Fabien Pelous.
Serge Betsen remains the fixed point in a back row that lacks only an authentic open-side flier to be a collective world-beater - if Thierry Dusautoir is not quite that, his impersonation of the role against England at Marseilles was pretty convincing.
France's half-backs epitomise the debate as to whether Laporte is blessed with options or cursed by indecision. Mignoni-Michalak might be the best creative option, but would run the risk of re-shredding Michalak's game by landing him with the goal-kicking duties.
To contemplate France's threequarters is to wonder that in their early days as a rugby nation they were handicapped by lack of physique - and the really scary thing about Messrs Rougerie, Traille and especially Jauzion is that are not simply big bruisers, but can also really play.
At least Christophe Dominici remains to placate members of the Campaign for Real Wing-Threequarters and bemuse markers with his ability to change direction without losing momentum, while Clement Poitrenaud looks to be developing into the world-class full-back his talents always promised.
It could go horribly wrong on Opening Day against the Pumas, but the best bet is that they'll be there at the Stade on Closing Day as well. And while logic still favours the All Blacks, there's little doubt which team they'd least want to see marching outside alongside them.
As that perceptive kiwi Spiro Zavos once pointed out - apropos of Obolensky's score for England in 1936, but the argument applies more generally - the one thing which truly scares the All Blacks is illogic. And the French, at least in New Zealand terms, do that better than anyone.