Coach's view: Beware of Les Bleus - they are ready now

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The Independent Online

Nearly every time it's the same. Patchy form before the tournament; then a revival out of nowhere that leads to a semi-final at the very least. Two wonderful victories in glorious semi-finals led to a couple of final appearances in 1987 and 1999. About a centimetre was all that kept them out of another when Abdel Benazzi was miraculously held up over the line by the host nation, South Africa, in Durban in 1995.

The French have a track record in World Cups that puts the rest of the northern hemisphere nations to shame. In other words they have a fair bit of previous - and none of it is too shabby.

This time around, the poor form is nicely in place - a disappointing summer tour included as standard (they lost in Argentina) - and they have even thrown in two pretty ordinary displays against England as an added bonus. Just to lull us all into a sense of security, presumably.

But on this occasion there has been a development which means that this particular French horse may be of an even darker shade than is customary. Traditionally, the club game in France has been so dominant that preparation time for the national team has been at a premium.

With the final of the club competition normally being played in early June and "amical" games beginning in August, there was barely time for the traditional break. This was one of the reasons that the French tended to tour well - their record in the southern hemisphere is fair to good, partly because they only really got together when they went away together.

However this summer the coach, Bernard Laporte, has been granted unlimited access to his squad. So much so that he was able to give virtually the whole of his first-choice pack the summer off. It was a case of "pop down to Biarritz, mes garçons, I'll see you all in July".

Since then they have been training and bonding at their wonderful national centre at Marcoussis, climbing mountains together in the Auvergne and indulging in a spot of altitude training at their Alpine base of Val d'Isère.

There is a real chance that the French will be able to combine their traditional flair (once described by Franck Mesnel, their former centre, as "a polite way of saying we don't know what the hell we are trying to do") with a real sense of organisation and purpose. Laporte carries the nickname of "The Professor", and this side will have had the benefit of any number of detailed tutorials.

Talented players are a given in any French side, and this one is no exception to the rule. There is plenty of grunt up front in the shape of Jean-Jacques Crenca, Sylvain Marconnet and Olivier Brouzet. They have a sublime back-row blend and bags of pace and guile out wide; especially if Tony Marsh makes a full recovery from his cancer treatment.

But in much the same way that Middle England is praying for that nice Jonny Wilkinson to stay out of harm's way, so France (or at least the southern half) is offering up more than a few Hail Marys for the safe passage of their leader, scrum-half and talisman Fabien Galthié. Without him the French team can look lost and directionless, but when he is on the field they usually remain focused and disciplined.

At full strength, the French can beat any side in the world on any given day, but they do have one great imponderable going into this World Cup. Can the skilful yet relatively inexperienced Frédéric Mich-alak run the show from fly-half? A year or so ago it looked certain that Gérald Merceron would be the pivot and kick the goals, but he has suffered a terrible slump in form - although Laporte has still taken him to Australia.

Now the young Toulouse playmaker is in possession of the numero dix shirt, and his performances to date have been inconclusive at best. He is capable of sublime touches at times, but has yet to show that he can manage a game at the highest level.

This is one of the reasons that he is played at scrum-half by his club in most of their big games. To date, no country has won the World Cup without a world-class outside-half - the lineage of Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh, Joel Stransky and Stephen Larkham is a strong one. Perhaps the young man will come of age as the tournament progresses, but with Argentina or Ireland or Australia lying in wait for him at the quarter-final stage, he will need to mature quickly.

The rest of the team look very strong, with good depth, but the fly-half issue does raise a few question marks. Solve this conundrum and they can put a string of results together. Whatever you do, don't bet against them.

Mark Evans is chief executive of Harlequins

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