Erratic form a spur, not a deterrent, for France
Updated: October 17, 2011, 01:35
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) France's erratic form at the Rugby World Cup has won it few admirers, but the confidence of the players remains intact heading into Sunday's final against familiar rival New Zealand.
France reached the final despite losing two pool matches and showing no kind of invention in its scrappy semifinal win against Wales, hanging on to win 9-8 against a team which conceded a one-man advantage for an hour.
Flair has long been considered a trademark in French teams, but even that has gone at this tournament, replaced by a rigid defense and an emphasis on kicking, not running, out of trouble.
Given all this, and that the odds are stacked in New Zealand's favor because of its 100 percent winning record at the 2011 tournament, it would be easy to dismiss France's chances in the final.
The French players views these things as positive omens.
"It's crazy, we're the only team in the history of rugby to lose two pool matches and reach the final,'' France prop Fabien Barcella said. "We're a team that cultivates contrasts.''
France's lowest point came after losing back-to-back games, 37-17 to New Zealand 19-14 to Tonga to conclude the pool stage.
The Tonga defeat was met with a mixture of fierce criticism and derision, and summed up how far the team had fallen. Over the past 12 months, France has been thrashed at home 59-16 by Australia, suffered heavy defeats in Argentina and South Africa, and lost to Italy in the Six Nations Championship.
These defeats, however, seem now to have heightened the resolve of the team.
"We've taken some hidings, maybe we've come out of it stronger mentally,'' said Barcella, who has drawn inspiration from Italy's run to the title at the 2006 football World Cup. "After the defeat (to Tonga) in Wellington, I said that when the Italian football team played badly for three matches and they still managed to be world champions.''
What makes the French team so dangerous for New Zealand is the way it reacted from that Tonga defeat, summoning up pride and passion to beat England after racing to a 16-0 halftime lead in a performance that defied form as well as logic.
"I think if we had beaten Tonga we would have lost to England, that's for sure. That's the French way,'' prop Jean-Baptiste Poux said. "The Tonga defeat did us the world of good, the whole squad became aware that rugby is above all a combat sport and that's what we showed against the English.''
The public and media criticism at home and abroad has also served as a spur.
"The players have been laughing a lot at the headlines for a while now,'' France coach Marc Lievremont said. "That's helped them pull together as well.''
The minds of the New Zealand players are too imprinted with the memories of past defeats to take the French lightly.
While the All Blacks dispatched Australia 20-6 on Sunday night to reach the final, and beat the French convincingly in the very first World Cup final in 1987, history is not on their side against France since then.
France is an old hand at confounding logic at World Cups - twice rallying to beat the All Blacks in an epic 1999 semifinal and in the quarterfinal four years ago.
"You can't fall asleep against the French. On their day they can turn up and destroy everyone, so we'll be watching that,'' New Zealand winger Cory Jane said. "We've got to work hard this week so that when it comes to game time we don't give them a chance, try and suffocate them.
"One minute they do something, the next minute they do something completely different, so it's hard, but we've got to just worry about us.''
The 28-year-old Jane was not on the field when France, inspired by ferocious tackling from its flanker Thierry Dusautoir, won an intense match under the floodlights in Cardiff 20-18 in 2007.
Neither was All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Cruden. But the 22-year-old playmaker still has bitter memories of watching both games on television. He was only 10 when France produced a devastating second-half display to win 43-31 in the '99 semifinal - and is keen to make amends for the past.
"We'll be looking to redeem that next week,'' he said. "We know as a team never to write the French off. They have been getting a lot of flak but it just shows the resilience in their team that they have made the World Cup final. No one probably thought it but they're there.''
France was also the last team to beat New Zealand on its fabled Eden Park, 23-20 back in July, 1994.
Coach Graham Henry and captain Richie McCaw will both be keen to drum home the message never to write France off, having both felt the pain of that defeat in Cardiff four years ago.
"We've got a history with France in Rugby World Cups and we respect them, so it's going to be another big game,'' Henry said.
"I think there's a lot of respect for the French and the way they go about their rugby,'' McCaw added. "It will be pretty easy for the boys to get their feet on the ground and get ready for next week.''