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Lievremont under fire over France team selection

Updated: September 21, 2011, 01:46

AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) Beleaguered France coach Marc Lievremont is winning few friends at the Rugby World Cup.

Having clashed with his country's media, and vehemently lambasted his own players, he is now facing widespread criticism over his team selection for Saturday's Pool A match against New Zealand.

New Zealand media and former France internationals are bashing Lievremont for picking scrumhalf Morgan Parra at flyhalf - he has never started there before - and for leaving his best forward, hooker William Servat, on the bench.

Lievremont has quashed talk of playing a deliberately weakened team - in the hope of losing to stay in second place and thus in the draw's favorable side - but his selection is prompting debate as to how much France wants to win the match at Eden Park.

The New Zealand Herald newspaper went straight for Lievremont, splashing "Rugby World Cup's $460 French farce'' on its front page, accusing him of devaluing an eagerly-awaited contest some fans have paid a high price to watch.

Its leading rugby columnist called it "an insult to the 60,000 who have bought tickets expecting a contest between teams at full strength.''

France lock Pascal Pape, who wins his 31st cap on Saturday, is annoyed at how his team is being perceived.

"When you're got the blue jersey on your shoulders, you never squander a match,'' he said Wednesday. "It's in no way a farce. They should leave us alone and we'll see on Saturday.''

Lievremont has earned a reputation for tinkering with his sides during his four years in charge, but his decision to pit the inexperienced Parra against Dan Carter, the world's best flyhalf, baffled most observers - and Parra himself found it surprising.

First-choice prop Fabien Barcella and Imanol Harinordoquy, among the best flankers in the world, were also left on the bench.

Harinordoquy thinks too much is being made of it.

"They're trying to light the fuse but the wood is damp. It won't catch,'' he said. "I feel like telling them that I've bought four (tickets) at 250 euros ($343 dollars) each, and I'm not complaining.''

Parra has played little more than 30 minutes at flyhalf in his career - or two cameo roles in the second half against Japan and Canada - and last played flyhalf at club level three years ago.

Lievremont, a former international flanker, said he partly made the decision to issue a challenge to his regular flyhalf, Francois Trinh-Duc, to raise his game after two poor matches.

He had no other option in that position, because Skrela's replacement - the uncapped Jean-Marc Doussain - only arrived on Tuesday from France and will be in no shape to play. Frederic Michalak, a shorter plane journey away in South Africa, was overlooked despite having more than 50 caps and nine years of international experience playing flyhalf.

Former Wales No. 8 Scott Quinnell made the following comment on his Twitter account: "Parra at 10 for France v NZ. Do you get the feeling that they would rather not win?''

Should France lose, it would likely stay in second spot, avoid South Africa and Australia in the knockout stages, and face familiar northern hemisphere foes England and Ireland.

Lievremont, who stands down after the tournament, insists his team will go all out for victory at Eden Park.

"It wouldn't be (in the spirit of) rugby to tell the players to give up on a game,'' he said. "We know that beating New Zealand is always an achievement, and if we do that it will be one. We will do everything to beat New Zealand.''

Lievremont, who has tense relations with the French media, could not resist a big dollop of sarcasm when he said: "I will speak to the players to see what they decide ... perhaps they will decide to give up on the game if it's easier for us afterward.''

But it is not only the local media who are angry at Lievremont's latest selection.

Former France scrumhalf and national team coach Pierre Berbizier, scorer of France's try in the 1987 World Cup final defeat to New Zealand, thinks Lievremont has made a mistake experimenting with Parra.

"A scrumhalf should remain a scrumhalf,'' he said. "The higher the level you play at, the more important this specificity becomes.''

Denis Charvet, who won 24 caps at center and played alongside Berbizier in the '87 final, is increasingly confused by the current French side.

"We still have no guarantees. We're improvising with Morgan Parra at flyhalf, we're taking Jean-Marc Doussain to play No. 10 when he's a scrumhalf, and we're not taking Frederic Michalak, who is fine form in South Africa,'' Charvet said on RMC radio station. "What surprises me is that we're turning this France team into a laboratory, and against the All Blacks, we know we have no room for error.''

Former prop Serge Simon went further still in his criticism and said the team selection "is Marc (Lievremont) through and through, (and) makes no sense.'' He then blamed Lievremont for "destroying Trinh-Duc('s)'' confidence.

France was the last visiting team to win at Eden Park, when it beat the All Blacks 23-20 in 1994.

A similar result would do wonders for French confidence, but not necessarily for its chances of reaching another final.

France would then be in first place in Pool A and face the prospect of nemesis Argentina in the quarterfinals, and Australia or South Africa in the semifinal.

Argentina beat France twice at the 2007 World Cup - on the opening day and in the third-place match - and has beaten France seven times in the last 10 matches between them.

Australia, which hammered Les Tricolores 59-16 at Stade de France last November, has won the last five matches and eight of the last 10 - including wins by 40-10 and 34-13 in 2008.

France has a better record against South Africa, winning six and drawing one of the last 10.

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