France under pressure to improve against Canada
Updated: September 16, 2011, 20:59
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NAPIER, New Zealand(AP) Coach Marc Lievremont hopes that if his French lineup gained anything other than the competition points for its sloppy opening World Cup win over Japan, it was lesson in humility ahead of Sunday's match against Canada.
Canada surprised some observers by beating Tonga 25-20 on Wednesday, and coach Kieran Crowley retained an unchanged lineup to take on France.
The French expect to be met head-on by a physical confrontation from Canada's robust pack, something they will have to overcome first if they want to then demonstrate their superior skill levels.
Some of the established tier one teams have struggled so far at the Cup, with Scotland had difficulty holding off Georgia and Romania, Ireland was laborious against the United States, and Japan gave France a big fright, getting to 25-21 midway through the second half before conceding late tries.
"The World Cup has shown that if the supposedly strong teams take other teams lightly, they get punished, like we were for a while against Japan,'' Lievremont said Saturday. "I hope the lesson was learned.''
Although France has reached two World Cup finals, it ended up losing both fairly soundly to New Zealand and Australia, and this only served to underline its reputation as a skilled, yet inconsistent, team.
Lievremont was impressed with New Zealand's 83-7 destruction of Japan on Friday night precisely because it underlined just what France seems to lack: a genuine ruthless streak.
"France is not New Zealand, I'm not sure - even though we've been warned after our match from last week - that we are capable of showing the same consistency New Zealand did over 80 minutes,'' Lievremont said. New Zealand "shows its respect for its opponent in a certain way ... by crushing them, there's no other word for it, until the final second.
France has "more Latin temperaments, (when we play) an easier match in which we've started comfortably, we take things more lightly, that's the way it is.''
After the scare against Japan, the French are unlikely to be dismissing Canada's threat.
"You have to reckon with them,'' Lievremont said. "They're very aggressive in defense, they have some talented players and they scored three nice tries (against Tonga). It's proof that we should take them very seriously.''
Aurelien Rougerie says France must "keep hammering the nail in until the final whistle blows'' if it gets ahead.
The early exchanges promise to be brutal.
Pat Riordan leads the Canadian forwards at hooker, Jamie Cudmore - Rougerie's club teammate at Clermont Auvergne - is at lock, and bushy-bearded Adam Kleeberger at flanker.
"They are very strong, they like a physical challenge but they have some weaknesses in terms of movement, discipline,'' Rougerie said. "We have to put enough pressure on them in order to take advantage.''
The fiery Cudmore will come up against four of his Clermont teammates, but Rougerie played down the rivalry.
"Our objective isn't to make him lose it,'' said Rougerie, speaking of Cudmore's famously short fuse. "Our objective is to win this match. We will focus on that.''
But things could get very hairy for France in the scrum.
Kleeberger, prop Hubert Buydens and lock Jebb Sinclair, have been gathering attention for their massive beards.
"They're lumberjacks, you can tell by the way they look,'' France flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc said. "You've got beards, shaved (heads), but above all strong players in every department.''
Kleeberger started growing his beard seven months ago and it is now down to his chest.
"It corresponds to the image we have of them, very tough payers,'' France winger Vincent Clerc said.
The contrast in styles between the teams is not limited just to playing style, but also aesthetically, as France's clean-cut image contrasts with Canada's rugged mountain man look.
With Sebastien Chabal missing, the closest France has to a hirsute warrior is winger Maxime Medard, whose long bushy sideburns and thick, wavy brown hair give him a resemblance to a younger version of the comic book character Wolverine in the X-Men series.
France had lopsided wins in its previous three tests against Canada - 50-6 in 2005, 47-13 in 2004, and 35-3 in 2002.
But the World Cup seems to inspire the Canadians, and France won their two contests at this tournament by far tighter margins: 19-13 in 1991 and 33-20 in '99. France has won six of their seven meetings, losing away to Canada 18-16 in '94.
Five of Canada's starting XV remain from the last meeting six years ago: Cudmore, Kleeberger, No. 8 Aaron Carpenter, scrumhalf Ed Fairhurst and center Ryan Smith. Cudmore and Fairhurst played in the last three meetings.
With Canada fielding an indentical team just four days after playing Tonga - and France getting an extra three days rest - Crowley admits tiredness could affect his team's concentration.
"Mentally, (consistency) is important when you're not used to rugby at that level,'' he said. "Some of the smaller teams in this tournament are staying with the stronger sides for 60 minutes, but not the full 80 because of it.''