France take on Namibia in Toulouse this evening, and this is the closest the World Cup gets to the rugby heartland of the French south-west. So what better place for the hosts to rediscover themselves after the shock of their opening defeat by Argentina? "We haven't lost the World Cup yet," said the recalled fly-half, Frédéric Michalak, a born-and-bred Toulousain. "The real pleasure comes when we play right, play with a smile."
The expression all week has been a grimace, from the newspaper headline "Scénario Catastrophe" on the morning after the 17-12 loss to the Pumas the night before. No more television cameramen invited into France's Marcoussis training centre, where pre-Argentina the players were shown on TV stashing a caught fish in one of the baths and generally larking about. No more complacent contemplation of a Stade de France final against the All Blacks. Now, even if Les Bleus' results go well against the Namibians and then Ireland in Paris next Friday, it could be New Zealand in – sacre bleu! – a Cardiff quarter-final. That, or elimination.
"Against Argentina, we lacked enjoyment, we didn't smile," said Michalak, who replaces the injured David Skrela. The version from Argentina's scrum-half, Agustin Pichot was that he looked across in the tunnel beforehand and saw the French players "petrified". Only three of that XV will start today: Cédric Heymans, who switches from full-back to wing, Damien Traille and Pieter de Villiers. "We need to play again to repair the wounds," said Bernard Laporte, France's head coach.
There is plenty riding on it, from the political to the trivial. A French government spokesman was required to confirm that the rugby results would have no bearing on Laporte's post-World Cup appointment as secretary of state for youth and sport. Meanwhile, with France's footballers losing in Paris to Scotland, one cannot expect soaring sales of the Quick burger brands "Anelka 39" and "Michalak 10".
At least Michalak has regained his favourite number after almost a year out with a knee injury. He said: "We'll have to be patient, not attempt impossible things, and if we play with composure and determination, we'll have no worries."
Maybe the French simply took their eyes off the oval ball. The crowds have been cheering the Georgians and the Japanese and the Portuguese. The chairman of the World Cup organising committee, Bernard Lapasset, legged it from Paris to Marseilles and back to give the All Blacks a pre-tournament welcome.
Last week Lapasset spoke of "a hangover without the drink", not to mention surrender and betrayal. The rugby newspaper 'Midi-Olympique' already has Fabien Galthié lined up to succeed Laporte, but surely that can wait. After the false start, it's time for France to turn up to the World Cup party.Reuse content