While their campaigns often take on elements of a French farce, it’s seldom a laughing matter to strike France in the knockout stages of a Rugby World Cup.
No matter how they under-perform, flounder or bicker among themselves in the pool stages, France is adept at reaching at least the quarterfinals and of upsetting higher-ranked or better-performing teams when they do.
Their knockout stage starts against Six Nations champion Wales in Oita on Sunday. The Welsh held off two-time champion Australia to win Pool D, while France placed second to England in Pool C – with both finishing unbeaten.
In every World Cup since the first in 1987, when they made the final, the French have never failed to reach the tournament’s knockout rounds. They have reached the final three times and lost in the semifinals on three other occasions.
Defending champion New Zealand is among teams which can attest to the dangerous nature of France as a World Cup opponent.
The All Blacks lost to France in the semifinals of the 1999 World Cup and in the quarterfinals of the 2007 tournament, when they were overwhelmingly favored to end their 20-year run of World Cup failures. That loss almost ended the All Blacks coaching career of Steve Hansen, who was then an assistant to Graham Henry and is now head coach.
France also came within a whisker of preventing New Zealand from finally lifting the World Cup trophy in 2011, losing 8-7 to the All Blacks in a cliff-hanging final.
The 2011 edition was an example of France’s ability to transform itself within the course of a tournament. The French looked nothing like a World Cup-winner in pool play, losing 37-17 to New Zealand and then, staggeringly, 19-14 to Tonga.
But they beat England, 19-12, in the quarterfinals and Wales 9-8 in another nail-biter in the semis.
France entered the final as the perhaps the biggest underdog in Rugby World Cup history, against an unbeaten New Zealand team which seemed fated to finally regain the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Captain Thierry Dusautoir rallied his players to produce a magnificent performance and the All Blacks needed a second-half penalty to fourth-choice flyhalf Stephen Donald and an immense defensive performance in the last quarter to scrape home.
According to reports, then France coach Marc Lievremont had been sidelined by the players who were concerned at his methods and tactics and took charge of their own campaign.
France’s current tour has been only slightly less fraught with poor performances and internal turmoil. It produced narrow wins over Argentina and Tonga, a more convincing win over the United States but its game against England, which might more accurately have measured its form, was canceled because of Typhoon Hagibis.
France placed second in its pool and its real ability remains enigmatic.
Veteran Maxime Medard admitted France has been inconsistent but showed the sanguine expectation that its form in pool play will be irrelevant in the quarterfinals.
”We have won, with a little difficulty, but we won and that’s what’s important,” Medard said. ”But in any match, in any competition, we are capable of playing well enough to win.”
Center Sofiane Guitoune said the French had a plan to iron out the inconsistencies.
”It’s true that, in the first matches, we took a quick lead and then the outcome always ends up the same,” he said. ”Perhaps because everything is going too well.”
”I think it’s more in our heads than it is a structural problem,” he added. ”We’ve talked about it, worked, reset our strategies so that when we start to act like idiots, to not respect the game plan, to panic for no reason, we can start off again on the front foot and not make ourselves afraid until the end of the match.”
The cancellation of France’s match against England left a couple of intriguing matters up in the air. French newspaper Midi Olympique reported that France captain Guilhem Guirado would not start against England after falling out with coaches Jacques Brunel and Fabien Galthie.
Mourad Boudjellal, the outspoken owner of French glamor club Toulon, fanned the flames by calling for a player insurrection against Brunel and Galthie.
”Take control guys, take the power, because there are coaches all over the place,” Boudjellal said in a video blog. ”Our team spirit is almost non-existent.
”Individually, we have players who are world class. Collectively, for several years, that hasn’t been the case. Take control guys, because it is your history, your World Cup.”
The call for a rebellion against the coaches had echoes of the soccer World Cup in 2010 when France captain Patrice Evra and his players refused to train after striker Nicolas Anelka was sent home for criticizing coach Raymond Domenech.
Wales assistant coach Stephen Jones on Tuesday said his squad was excited about the facing the French.
”We’ve won seven of the last eight games, which is great from our perspective, but we know the challenge on Sunday – they’re opposition we respect,” Jones said. ”They have a great pool of players, they are great athletes, very unpredictable who enjoy the broken field.
”If we are loose and turn ball over easily, then they are in their element and are very, very dangerous.”
AP Sports Writer John Pye in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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