Our ‘State of the Nation’ series takes a look at all the main contenders ahead of this year’s Rugby World Cup. Attentions this time turn to France – the perennial ‘hot and cold’ outfit. But with their World Cup pedigree, write them off at your peril.
1987 – Runners up; 1991 – Quarter finalists; 1995 – Third place; 1999 – Runners up; 2003 – Fourth; 2007 – Fourth; 2011 – Runners up.
This is the scorecard of France and it makes them the best Rugby World Cup side never to win the competition. Fact.
At this point you’ve probably spat out that big glug of coffee you had swilling about your chops, and you’re more than likely to be hunting for a pen to write that letter which states, “Dear Red Rugby, you can’t seriously be suggesting that France are genuine contenders for Rugby World Cup 2015. They are simply awful!”. If you are in the middle of writing that letter, you have every right to do so. In the last four years since the 2011 tournament, France (under the guidance of Philippe Saint-Andre) have been woeful. Let’s compare that very respectful set of stats above to Les Bleus’ most recent outings in the Six Nations:
2012 – Fourth; 2013 – Sixth; 2014 – Fourth; 2015 – Fourth.
For French fans, those final standings make for underwhelming reading. The most recent cycle between World Cups has been characterised by baffling selection decisions by Saint-Andre and a seeming unwillingness to perform by the players selected on the pitch. The theory goes that playing for Les Bleus is no longer the top priority for a set of players who are fortunate enough to ply their domestic trade in the richest league on the planet. The result is what many have said to be (somewhat ironically) ‘the poorest French side in decades’. There’s plenty of evidence to support that claim. To their horrendous recent showings in the Six Nations you can add a disastrous summer tour to Australia in 2014, an equally embarrassing three-test whitewash in New Zealand in 2013 and a repeat of that double defeat to Argentina (of 2007 World Cup fame) in the November internationals of last year. So surely France are all set up for their worst Rugby World Cup performance since 1991 – the last time the tournament came to England.
Don’t be so sure.
Cast your mind back, if you will, to that glorious autumn four years ago when the eyes of the world descended on New Zealand and, remarkably, France came within a point of being world champions. Here, in a nutshell, is the story of their last World Cup:
France entered the tournament amid claims that there were tensions between the squad and their enigmatic coach Marc Leivremont. Those tensions would be displayed publicly later in the tournament when the coach would label his players ‘spoilt brats’. As for the campaign itself, it began with uneasy wins against Japan and Canada before disintegrating with a twenty point loss to New Zealand and then, most remarkably of all, a 14-19 reverse to Tonga. The French squeezed through their pool thanks to a couple of bonus points. Unsurprisingly, most expected France to bow out at the quarter-finals. However, they miraculously rallied to beat England 19-12 before coming through an incredible contest against Wales in the semi-final (a match that mas marred by Sam Warburton’s red card for a tip tackle on Vincent Clerc). They met the Kiwis again in the final but, by this time, the hosts were rocked by injuries and the expectation of a desperate nation. The French nearly nicked it and probably should have won it. But they lost 8-7 and, in doing so, had shaken off the ridicule and gained the respect of the rugby world once more.
There are quite a few familiarities between that squad of 2011 and the one about to embark on a mission to escape Pool D. Both coaches at the helm liked/like to drop their best players, or play people out of position. Both sides were not/are not expected to perform that well in the tournament. Both squads were/are filled with talent.
Given the World Cup pedigree of France, and given their heroics (or antics depending on how you see it) of four years ago, you simply cannot write off this French team as contenders to lift the Webb Ellis trophy. To do that, they will have to beat at least one of Italy and Ireland. If they beat both, a quarter final with Argentina beckons…and then who knows. Recent performances against England will give the French hope that they’re moving in the right direction.
So, what would a successful World Cup look like for them? For the ever mind-boggling Saint-Andre, nothing less than making the final once more will do. Will they get that far? It remains to be seen. But what is for certain is that France have the potential to spoil the party, as they have been doing for many tournaments now. As they did to Wales in 2011. As they did to New Zealand in 2007 and 1999. As they did to Australia in 1987.
Would you want your side to face them? Neither would we.