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France still bears mental scars of England defeats

Updated: October 05, 2011, 23:34

AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) Vincent Clerc admits the France squad still bears the mental scars of its World Cup defeats to England, and he's still haunted by the memory of Jonny Wilkinson's clinical kicking four years ago.

The teams meet again in the quarterfinals on Saturday, with England holding the psychological edge after coming from behind to win the last two semifinals.

In 2007, France led by one point with six minutes remaining until Wilkinson landed a penalty and a dropped goal in quick succession to give England a 14-9 win.

"We've got to take revenge for how we've been playing here, but also with regards to 2007 as well, because they cut us down in full flow,'' Clerc said on Thursday. "They ended our dream, so effectively there's a bit of revenge.''

France stopped playing rugby in the closing stages of the 2007 semi, and was desperately clinging onto a 9-8 lead. Moments later, France needed a converted try to win with only two minutes left and lost its composure.

"We tensed up after Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal and this blocked us a little bit,'' Clerc said. "We can't fall into the same form of stress if we're leading in the match again and they come back at us.''

Neither team is brimming with confidence heading into the match at Eden Park.

England has won its four pool matches, while France has lost its last two matches: 37-17 to New Zealand and 14-9 to Tonga - a defeat that prompted a mixture of vitriol and derision back home.

Given France's woeful form, and England's strength in knockout rugby, Martin Johnson's England starts favorite.

No. 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, who wins his 75th cap on Saturday, faced Johnson in the 2003 semifinal.

France led 7-0 early on thanks to Serge Betsen's converted try, but was then destroyed as Wilkinson landed five penalties and three drop goals.

"I don't mind playing the English, because I'm a competitor. Playing against the English motivates me,'' Harinordoquy said. "A lot of things stick in the throat, especially the two semifinals I've lost.''

Several French players have mentioned the same thing in the buildup to Saturday's game: That no matter how poorly the English are playing beforehand, it makes no difference when they come up against France.

"When they're not playing their best, they manage to get it back against us and they become another team,'' Harinordoquy said. "The result will be what it is, but we want to walk off with our heads held high, knowing we've given everything.''

Although France beat England 12-10 to seal a Six Nations Grand Slam title last year, the manner in which England played that day impressed Harinordoquy.

"They were catastrophic throughout the tournament, and they were transformed as a team when they got to Paris,'' he said. "They have the ability to surpass themselves and to play a much more fluid style of rugby when they play us. I'm ready for anything.''

Hooker William Servat has given up trying to predict how England will play.

"You study the video for a long time, and then they turn up and do something completely different,'' he said. "Every time we've played the English it's been decided on commitment, the physical challenge. I don't think there'll be a lot of genius in the match, but there will be a lot of combat.''

England got the better of Argentina and Scotland by grinding down their opponents and scoring decisive late tries.

While England's 100 percent record in the pool stage is more impressive than what France has managed so far, the manner of England's wins have been far from impressive.

"I don't think they're better than in 2007. They've had a few difficulties, like we've had,'' Servat said. "It was a close call for them against some teams.''

Even Wilkinson has struggled, missing 11 of his 20 kicks.

"If he's under pressure, he's like anyone else,'' France flanker Julien Bonnaire said.

The French forwards will need to get on top of England's big pack to have a chance of winning, but must remain wary of England's double kicking threat of Wilkinson and Toby Flood, who has been selected at inside center.

"You need to be aggressive but to be intelligent as well. We can't afford to give away free points,'' Bonnaire said. "I'm convinced we have the potential to win. We just need to prove it out on the field.''

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