James Lawton: Lièvremont yearns for a fairy-tale ending


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The Independent Online

In a little more than 72 hours Marc Lièvremont may have stunned the rugby world. He may have moved from the low ground of controversy to the uplands of pure legend.

At this moment, though, he is standing beneath a ball that has been hoisted high by one of his coaching assistants.

It is one of the Lièvremont rituals, this session of kicking and catching while his frequently malcontented players loosen up at the other side of the training field for a little serious work before Sunday's World Cup final with the All Blacks.

The wet ball hangs and drops through the French head coach's hands and if you are looking for a discouraging portent this might just be one – except this is a day when the man with old-style Hollywood looks is in quite crackling form, wry, philosophical and refusing to reject the idea that, just possibly, something extraordinary might happen at Eden Park.

A few hours earlier, in the team's city-centre hotel, he broadcast to the world the message he is giving his players now. This says that only a Herculean improvement on the performance against Wales last weekend will create the beginnings of a winning effort against a New Zealand team he has never held in greater respect.

He was asked if France could win the World Cup in the same way they beat Wales in the semi-final. "No, I don't think so," he dead-panned.

"You know," he added, "I always expect the best of the All Blacks. They were exceptional in the semi-final against Australia.

"I'm not sure it helps us at all that they are such favourites. We are in the final match and every time we play them it is the same thing. They are always the favourites – and all I can say is that I believe in my team – and I believe they can win."

For the 42-year-old, it is not an idea clutched from outside of his experience. Twelve years ago he was a member of the French team that beat the All Blacks in a World Cup semi-final at Twickenham. "I am certainly appreciating this week," he says. "I try to tell myself that I am a very privileged person."

That was not his overwhelming sensation in the wake of the desperate victory over Wales when half the players broke ranks and went out to celebrate a triumph that Lièvremont believed was so bad that someone must have been watching over his team. He railed against the indiscipline of "spoiled brats" but yesterday he was the pragmatist again. "I think I said those things to put pressure on the players – and then when I read my words I thought, 'I guess I could have stayed silent'. Now we have to concentrate on our solidarity and aggression."

As Lièvremont opens his lesson for the day, the French close the doors on their work-out at Takapuna Rugby Club. But not before Imanol Harinordoquy claims the centre of the stage.

The Basque No 8, who played so magnificently against England in the quarter-final, is potentially the most striking evidence that some of Lièvremont's open warfare with the dressing room has had a successful purpose. Certainly the mind games he played with Harinordoquy earlier in the tournament produced the optimum result against England. By leaving him to cool on the bench in the pool stage, the coach provoked a huge appetite for action.

Now he has to stoke other fires. Has he rehearsed his latest call to arms? "I am usually a spontaneous person and I have not prepared anything specific. Against the All Blacks you always have to pay most attention to detail, every detail, because it is one of the things they do best. No, I don't feel personal pressure."

Perhaps, after all, he has done a little work on his pre-game speech. Maybe he was doing it when he dropped the high ball. One thing is already certain. He is not the easiest man to knock out of a game and this might just include the one that may well define the rest of his days.