allons, enfants

WE HAVE ARRIVED – IN CASE YOU HAVEN’T BEEN PAYING ATTENTION – AT THE SHARP END OF RWC 2015 AS NORTH AND SOUTH SQUARE UP ACROSS LAST EIGHT. SO, AS YOU HEAD TO THE SOFA WITH A RED PENCIL AND THE LATEST EDITION OF ‘THE SPORTING LIFE’, WHERE’S YOUR MONEY NOW?

New Zealand? Yes, well, they’re getting a lot of love from the bookmakers but – let’s not forget – they’ve never won the thing outside Auckland. Australia? No question, running white-hot and, conversely, a team who’ve never lost a World Cup within ten miles of the M4. Ireland? Heroic, but just how much Elastoplast have they got left in the locker? Scotland? Shrewdly positioned on the softer side of the draw but still rank outsiders. Wales? Ditto Ireland. Argentina? Ditto Scotland. And South Africa? Well, they’ve got to be serious contenders now that the Japanese have headed home.

Me, though, I’m sticking with the French. Yes, I know, but I went for them right from the off and – as the fragrant Mrs. Simmons would confirm – I’m nothing if not stubborn. Why did I go for them right from the off? Good question. If I’m honest there were umpteen reasons, not least (a) I have a small man-crush on Wesley Fofana (b) contrariness, given everyone else was fearlessly plumping for New Zealand and (c) I adore singing along to ‘La Marseillaise,’ despite the fact that I only know the first line and the bit at the end about ‘impure blood drenching our furrows’. What can I say? It’s a fabulous noise. Indeed, hopeless Francophile that I am, adopting ‘Les Bleus’ was a bit of a cultural thing all round. France, as de Gaulle once pointed out, produces two hundred and forty-six different cheeses. How can you not want a country like that to win the World Cup?

But – essentially – the hunch was historical. France are never better than when they are confusion’s masterpiece – 2011 And All That – and back in May when I first nailed my ‘tricolor’ to the mast, they were a rabble. They’d been pummeled – again – in the Six Nations, they’d shipped fifty points at Twickenham, they’d sacked their coach yet left him in charge for the World Cup – just bonkers – and the entire orchestra was being conducted by Freddie Michelak, who doesn’t appear to read a word of music and instead plays everything by ear. Frankly, they looked unhinged, which is why I thought, alors, a quid on les Frenchies sur le nez.

And then, of course, it all began to unravel. France warmed up against England in Paris and atomised Lancaster’s First Fifteen, indeed the yeoman of the English pack were beaten up so badly they needed shoehorns to put their hats on for the journey home. The French then arrived in downtown Croydon – in itself a statement of their uncharacteristically prosaic approach – and instead of joining in with a succession of raucous, late-night wedding receptions in the team hotel, they rolled over and went back to sleep. Worse still, Philippe St Andre had – presumably – mislaid his blindfold and pin and suddenly a succession of beautifully balanced French fifteens were playing brutal rugby with Michelak looking utterly masterful. I was beginning to despair. How on earth were they going to win the bloody thing playing like this?

But then, mercifully, came the Irish game last Sunday whereat – in the nick of time – they reverted spectacularly to type. Credit to Ireland who were tougher to shake off than a mosquito in a hot room but France were a shambles. Balls hit the deck, players ran into each other, the line-out vapourised, the ruck went to pieces, the attitude was supine, the game-plan constipated and – absolutely ‘incroyable’ – not one but two French front rows got their ‘tetes’ shoved up their ‘derrieres’. This, I thought to myself gleefully, was much more like it.

So here now are France, limping into the quarter-finals, unheralded, unloved and in total disarray. Presumably – and I have my fingers very firmly crossed – they’ll spend the entire week at each other’s throats. There will be tears, recriminations – there might even, praise the Lord, be some sort of mutiny – and assuming Philippe St Andre still gets to pick the team, we’ll end up with Tillous-Borde in the ten shirt and Bastareaud on the wing. As Marshal Foch supposedly reported to Marshal Joffre at the First Battle of the Marne in 1914: ‘my centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent. I am attacking. ‘

Indeed part of me suspects that, perhaps, all of this is a brilliant – almost Napoleonic – outflanking manouevre, avoiding the dreaded Argentina – the team France couldn’t beat at either end of their own World Cup in 2007 – and instead lining up those patsy New Zealanders, the team they walloped in the 1999 semi-final, knocked out in the 2007 quarter-final and stunned in the 2011 final when only a mighty rearguard action from Richie McCaw and the – let’s be polite – eccentric refereeing of Craig Joubert somehow stopped the talismanic Thierry Dusatoir from walking away with William.

Certainly asking New Zealand to head back to Cardiff this weekend for a World Cup quarter-final against France is like asking the body to return to the scene of the crime. Up on the second floor of Sky Sports’ West London Lubyanka, I have a desk opposite our affable Kiwi Director, Tim Dale, who has a ticket for the game and a vague air of disquiet.

‘Look, there’s no pressure,’ he says. ‘It’s just the weak who’re worried. I’m not scared of them. Really. We’ll be fine. In fact, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Revenge, isn’t it? Bring ‘em on. I mean it. Let’s do it.’

‘Really?’

There’s a long, cold pause.

‘No. Actually, can we not talk about this anymore?’

You can understand why Les All Blacks might be getting a little tight. History has always assumed that the French were invented to irritate the English but, in recent years, that’s looked rather less like the white team and rather more like the black one. Surely it’s not going to be deja-vu all over again?

Well, it just might be. As Graham Henry pointed out this week, too many Test teams have too often tried to out-Kiwi the Kiwis with an all-court, fifteen-man game. France, you suspect, will do no such thing. Instead their behemoth pack will redact the playbook, serve and volley and look to blast New Zealand clean off the grass. As PSA put it this week in a jaw-jutting – almost Jacobin – news conference: ‘we have to get ready like a firing squad’. Blimey. It’s going to be the Reign of Terror all over again.

No question France are broken, battered and dispirited enough to do it – in short, they’re in the perfect place to unleash ‘la mere’ of all performances. But even then, they could stuff New Zealand, batter South Africa and still lose to Scotland in the final. Zut alors. Just as well it was only a pound.

04 OCTOBER 2015

PS The quarter-final finished New Zealand 62-13 France. My crystal ball is now at the bottom of the bin alongside a leftover slab of Brie and a half-finished bottle of Cotes de Gascogne.

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