Once upon a time Bernard Laporte was asked to name his favourite historical figure. "William the Conqueror," he replied, "because he defeated the English." Today happens to be the 941st anniversary of the little set-to at Hastings in which the Duke of Normandy's troops got the better of their Anglo-Saxon foe. They did so by firing relentless waves of arrows over a wall of English shields.
Last night on the north side of Paris, Laporte's men showed a glimpse of a weapon capable of piercing English hearts. Three penalties from the booming right boot of Lionel Beauxis gave the host nation a 9-5 advantage four minutes into the second-half of a nerve-shredding semi-final.
Then, all of a sudden, the French arrows disappeared. It was the left-boot of England's No 10 that struck the telling blows: one swift penalty to make it 9-8, then another with six minutes to go and a drop goal for good measure. France and their coach had been put to the sword again: the Wilkinson sword.
As the stadium emptied, the strains of Edith Piaf rang round the ground: "Non, je ne regrette rien." Down in the press room, Laporte was not quite singing the same tune. "Obviously we should have let ourselves go and played more with the ball," the departing coach lamented. It was a Gallic statement of the bleedin' obvious. Attempting to sit on a one-point lead for the last half-hour of a World Cup semi-final on home soil will be another item on the charge sheet laid at Laporte's door as he prepares for a job in Nicolas Sarkozy's government.
The recriminations will not be long in coming his way. Over his eight years as head coach of the French team there has been mounting concern about the degree to which natural Gallic flair has been replaced with plain Anglo-Saxon obduracy. England might have adopted a Kenny Rogers song, "The Gambler", as their theme tune but Laporte – who owns a casino, plus two camp sites and a restaurant – staked his reputation on placing discipline and control above spontaneity and va-va-voom. It was a long-term, calculated punt at minimising the risk factor.
It paid off big-time against the All Blacks in Cardiff eight days ago. The work of Laporte's English defence coach, Dave Ellis, was clear to see. The official French tackle count was a staggering 178. The question was how much so many big hits, such manning of the barricades, had taken out of the troops.
The answer was not long in coming. The French coach was wringing his hands in desperation with 80 seconds on the clock, his men having left the drawbridge down and plonked a welcome mat on their right flank. Josh Lewsey gave Damien Traille a pat of gratitude for the moment's hesitation that allowed the Wasp to gather Andy Gomarsall's box kick. England's left wing might have done the same to Laporte for deploying the Biarritz centre at full-back.
The five points were to prove decisive. When Beauxis made it 9-5, Laporte punched the air in jubilation. Prematurely. Ultimately, it was Dimitri Szarzewski's high tackle on Jason Robinson that did for France, inviting Wilkinson to swing his left boot from well within range. When England's saviour followed with his successful drop goal, all that was left for France and their coach was a place in Friday's "bronze medal final", rugby's equivalent of the Crackerjack Pencil.Reuse content