Opening matches in World Cups have not always sent the spirits soaring – when England's footballers played Uruguay in 1966, a nation yawned, then fell asleep before half-time – but a thoroughly unscientific opinion poll carried out in the bars and boulevards of this wonderful city yesterday revealed an unprecedented level of expectation ahead of tonight's curtain-raiser between France and Argentina. "The thought of it makes me shudder," said Raphael Ibanez, the captain of the host country. If it is having this effect on a hardened warrior like Ibanez, heaven knows how the South Americans are feeling.
The French, renowned for their mastery of the disinterested shrug, are not shrugging any more. Tonight's match in Saint-Denis has been sold out for many months – 80,000 seats, 80,000 backsides – and the capital is smothered in rugby paraphernalia, from an oval ball the size of a small chateau hanging beneath the central platform of the Eiffel Tower to hundreds of photographs of the former Tricolore captain Emile N'Tamack helping his wife change a kitchen light bulb by hoisting her into the air, lineout style. Ibanez and his brethren dare not lose this one.
Yet the game is anything but a foregone conclusion, even though Les Bleus performed so impressively in winning all three of their warm-up matches last month. Argentina have long experience of launching World Cups and know their way around such occasions, having stretched Wales in Cardiff in 1999, and then Australia in Sydney four years ago. What is more, they are the proud owners of the most overtly physical pack of forwards operating in this competition. If the hosts are to do their duty on the "France Expects" front, they will have to do it the hard way.
There was no shortage of confidence from the Pumas on the eve of the game. "This is one of the most beautiful things I have been through in my whole life," said their captain, Agustin Pichot, who, in common with a good many of his colleagues, plays club rugby here in the elite French Top 14 tournament. "We are in a country that is a little bit ours too. On Tuesday, I attended the captains' photo-shoot and then went to visit my family before returning to the team hotel. My neighbours, all French, told me they would shout for Argentina. If we can start on the right foot, the people in Buenos Aires will shout for us too. But if we start losing, they will go back to watching football matches – even ones from the fourth division."
Argentina have selected their most exhilarating player, the Paris-based Juan Martin Hernández, in the pivot position of outside-half, even though he plays the vast majority of his rugby at full-back. The 25-year-old is routinely mentioned in the same breath as Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter, two New Zealanders generally considered to be a class apart from the common herd of international practitioners, and yesterday, the French sports paper L'Equipe described him as "Le Maradona du Rugby". No great weight of expectation on Hernández, then.
"All the world will be watching, but I will stay calm and enjoy it," he said. "I hope we can remain focused on the match and listen only to ourselves. It is better if we do not listen to the crowd." He may not have a choice in the matter. With Zinedine Zidane, the fine French footballer celebrated for a rare ability to head both goals and opponents with equal facility, stoking the fires with his public support of the home team, the decibel level from the stands will turn the stadium into a bearpit reminiscent of the old Parc des Princes across town.
"Zidane has experience of this World Cup moment and he wanted to show his support for the team," said Bernard Laporte, the Tricolore coach. "It was a heartfelt message that touched the players deeply. Now, we are anxious for the competition to start. We have never been as ready as we are now."
France have won 30 of their 39 Tests against the Pumas, but in recent times, their supremacy has been considerably diluted. Indeed, they have finished second on four of the last five meetings. Argentina are the only international side to have beaten the Tricolores in Marseilles, their most forbidding fortress, but they lost on their one and only visit to Saint-Denis, in November 2006. Not by much, though. They went down 27-26.
Tonight's Stade de France teams
1 O Milloud (Bourgoin)
2 R Ibanez (Wasps, capt)
3 P De Villiers (Stade Français)
4 F Pelous (Toulouse)
5 J Thion (Biarritz)
6 S Betsen (Biarritz)
7 R Martin (Stade Français)
8 I Harinordoquy (Biarritz)
9 P Mignoni (Clermont Auvergne)
10 D Skrela (Stade Français)
11 C Dominici (Stade Français)
12 D Traille (Biarritz)
13 Y Jauzion (Toulouse)
14 A Rougerie (C Auvergne)
15 C Heymans (Toulouse)
Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Français); J-B Poux (Toulouse); S Chabal (Sale); J Bonnaire (Bourgoin); T Dusautoir (Toulouse); J-B Elissalde (Toulouse); F Michalak (Toulouse)
1 R Roncero (Stade Français)
2 M Ledesma (Clermont Auvergne)
3 M Scelzo (Clermont Auvergne)
4 I Fernandez Lobbe (Sale)
5 P Albacete (Toulouse)
6 L Ostiglia (Agen)
7 J M Fernandez Lobbe (Sale)
8 J M Leguizamon (London Irish)
9 A Pichot (Stade Français, capt)
10 J M Hernandez (Stade Français)
11 H Agulla (Hindu)
12 F Contepomi (Leinster)
13 M Contepomi (Newman)
14 L Borges (Stade Français)
15 I Corleto (Stade Français)
Replacements: A Basualdo (Alumni); S Bonorino (Capitolina); R Alvarez Kairelis (Perpignan); M Durand (Montpellier); N Fernandez Miranda (Hindu); F Todeschini (Montpellier); H Senillosa (Hindu)
Referee: A Spreadbury (Eng)
Kick-off: 8pm BST (ITV 1)Reuse content