Rugby World Cup: Magnificent French make the most of their luck

Spirit of adventure and confidence are key factors in Tricolores' success but they can also look back on fortunate escape against Fiji
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WHEN JEAN-CLAUDE Skrela and Pierre Villepreux reflect on Sunday's little tete-a-tete with the All Blacks - in truth, they will have to sweat a gallon or two of Chateau Whatever from their respective bloodstreams before they are in a position to reflect on anything at all - the Tricolore coaches-in-tandem will surely acknowledge the help they received from one particular New Zealand individual.

We are not talking Taine Randell or Andrew Mehrtens here, even though the Silver Fern captain and his senior lieutenant got their tactics in a desperate twist amid the sound and fury of that unexpected French revolt, but Mr Paddy O'Brien, the balding forty-something referee from Invercargill, an anonymous South Island town on the main road to Antarctica.

Had it not been for O'Brien's eyesight - or, rather, the lack of it - France would not have made it to Twickenham for the second semi-final and World Cup rugby would not have been in a position to take the great leap forward we witnessed at the weekend. Either the Fijians or the Argentinians should have faced the All Blacks in London, and with all due respect to the islanders and the Pumas, both of whom left a distinctive mark on the fabric of this competition, neither would have put 43 points past Jolly Jonah and company in a zillion years. Let's hear it for Paddy, everyone.

It is worth recalling, if only to reassure ourselves of the life-enhancing unpredictability of sporting endeavour, that France could and should have lost to Fiji in Toulouse 18 days ago. The islanders were robbed blind by a refereeing performance almost as flawed as England's quarter-final effort against the Springboks: not only was Setareki Tawake, the Queensland- based flanker from Kavala, denied a perfectly legitimate try at an important psychological juncture just before the interval, but the decisive penalty try awarded against the Fijian front row was a travesty of all forms of justice known to man.

Had Fiji been fairly rewarded for their efforts, they would have headed straight for a quarter-final with the Pumas in Dublin and left France to take their chance on the World Cup's "highway to hell" - a perilous repechage match with England at Twickenham, followed by a home quarter- final with South Africa and a semi-final date with the Wallabies. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Tricolores would have struggled to go the distance.

As it is, they will draw oodles of comfort and inspiration from the fact that two previous world champions, Australia in 1991 and South Africa four years ago, needed all the luck going before translating wild ambition into concrete reality. The Wallabies' famous quarter-final conflict with Ireland at Lansdowne Road turned on one missed touch-finder from Rob Saunders, the home scrum-half, whose error enabled Michael Lynagh to manufacture a dream-salvaging try at the death. The Springboks, meanwhile, were mere inches - some estimate six, others as little as three - from defeat in Durban four years ago. Abdel Benazzi, the great French forward who single- handedly took charge of the early stages of Sunday's game and established the Tricolores' right to inhabit the same rectangle of grass as the tournament favourites, was virtually on top of the Bokke goal-line when he was felled, very late in the day, by James Small.

World Cups are not won on talent alone, then: prospective champions need a reasonable draw, good fortune with injuries, a friendly bounce of the ball both on and off the paddock. That the French have enjoyed a leg up from Madamoiselle Luck can scarcely be disputed; even the injury to their resident genius, Thomas Castaignede, has worked in their favour, allowing them to recall the less flamboyant, more percentage-conscious Christophe Lamaison to the outside-half berth, from where he kicked the living daylights out of New Zealand at the weekend.

The Brive stand-off may yet be revealed as the Paolo Rossi of the union game; an out-of-favour match-winner restored to a struggling World Cup side at the optimum moment, Lamaison's impact is beginning to resemble that made by the Italian striker in Spain in 1982. Destiny? Eighty minutes of rugby at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on Saturday will reveal the precise nature of the forces behind this sudden flowering of French romance, but the Gods have certainly been smiling on Les Bleus these last couple of weeks.

Lamaison's re-emergence in the pivot role has brought about a decisive shift in French focus. During last season's Five Nations, Villepreux demanded performance art from a team of artisans and received a wooden spoon for his trouble. Now that he is lumbered with a kicking stand-off, the unashamedly high-minded coach has descended a few rungs of the intellectual ladder and sanctioned a back-to-basics approach. Given that the French pack, with Benazzi back to his best and Olivier Magne in mesmeric form, has been functioning strongly all tournament, it is as well to put the ball in front of it and wait for the fall-out.

None of this even begins to explain the sheer magnitude of the French performance on Sunday, but then the players themselves probably find it inexplicable. Fear played its inspirational part; not fear of defeat, necessarily, but fear of the humiliation that might have ensued had the All Blacks scored early tries and opened up a 20-point lead by the half- hour mark. There was also a spirit of adventure and a dangerous confidence about the Tricolores, born of a growing esprit de corps, a conviction that they were indeed worthy opponents for the apparent champions-elect.

But the precise formula will forever remain a mystery. It would be easier to bottle the wind than to capture the essence of the performance from the ends of the earth.