For captains of England and France to agree on the position of the French is unusual but understandable given the dire performance by Les Bleus in their most humiliating World Cup defeat ever to Tonga yesterday. Raphaël Ibanez and Phil Vickery went ear to cauliflower ear in the scrums in the 2003 and 2007 semi-finals – they were the respective skippers in 07 – that were both won by England. "It all seems doom and gloom but I promise you will see a much improved team from now on," said Ibanez. "One of the main reasons is there is so much room for improvement." Vickery's opinion? "The more chaos there is in the French camp, the more their opponents have to worry about. The trap for England is to think that we think we've been there, done that, so it will happen again."
France's first World Cup defeat by a second-tier nation, losing19-14 in Wellington yesterday when the margin could easily have been 25 points had all Tonga's chances been taken and Kurt Morath kicked better for the Pacific Islanders, did not stop them qualifying for the quarter-finals. They meet England in Auckland on Saturday, but goodness knows with what line-up as the tinkerer, head coach Marc Lièvremont, will be pressured to make changes.
Perhaps the Catalan will surprise the world and stay true to a XV who – to be charitable to them – knew in the backs of their minds that it would take a four-try victory by Tonga to upset the Pool A standings. As a former Test flanker, Lièvremont packed down with Ibanez in France's 1998 Grand Slam side. Ibanez the Basque knows Lièvremont intimately and said he could excuse most of the current selections, save that of the regular scrum-half Morgan Parra in the No 10 jersey. "The only thing I would question is Parra when François Trinh-Duc had been picked there for so long before the World Cup," said Ibanez. "To me Parra is a very clever footballer and that's why he's been picked. But the defensive channel around 10, either side of him, will be looked at hard by England."
Parra and yesterday's scrum-half, Dimitri Yachvili, are both good goal-kickers; Yachvili had the honour, landing three penalties. But the 22-year-old Parra, who has rarely had a match at fly-half in his senior career, was floundering and kicking in a hurry out of hand. France had anyone and everyone standing at first receiver and naturally the smoothness of their backline, with Florian Fritz and Yannick Jauzion, Toulouse's French title-winning centres, not even selected for the tournament, suffered. The two Maximes – Mermoz at centre and Médard from full-back – did their best with solo runs but the support lines were abysmal. Bonnaire's missed tackle that allowed Sukanaivalu Hunfanga to score Tonga's try summed up the lackadaisical effort. The scrummaging led by William Servat and Luc Ducalcon was the only saving grace.
New Zealand journalists made play of Lièvremont's confrontation with a French journalist who asked last week whether France could win the World Cup. Ibanez said players piping up with their opinions in the French squad is typical of the coach giving players freedom while retaining control. "The New Zealand press should stop laughing at the French. The columnists are enjoying what's going on with France. There's a difference between confidence about the All Blacks and arrogance. They should learn about what happened in 1999 and 2007. At least the All Blacks' staff didn't buy into that."
And unlike the All Blacks, the former prop Vickery knows what it takes to knock France out of a World Cup. "In '03 I just worried about France's loosehead prop, Jean-Jacques Crenca, and as a team we just defended and defended and Jonny Wilkinson kicked the kicks. Then you had '07, oh my God, we were so focused, playing the hosts in their own stadium in Paris. With England they're fiercely fought games and in '07 we got a good start – we got out and got at 'em. You can't let them come at you. We put them under so much pressure and that's what England have to do again next week.
"You would have to say France are the ones with the mental block, but though I'm not superstitious, you still worry about it being third time lucky for them. If the rumours are true of guys taking control, then the French team are hurting and dangerous. I'd still say France at their best can play great rugby."
Ibanez is hoping the French back row can slow their quarter-final opponents down at the breakdown but the dire lack of any flair off first and second-phase ball is a worry.
The open era brought Ibanez and other French stars to play and becomepopular in England: Laurent Cabannes, Philippe Sella, Thierry Lacroix, Philippe Saint-André, Abdel Benazzi and Sébastien Chabal among them. And France have sometimes played more like England than the English in recent years; pressurising and waiting for turnovers.
Most surprising, there appears to be another factor, albeit hidden in an embarrassing place neither set of supporters choose to look into. A new pals act, of Europeans against the Tri-Nations, that was evident in Paris the morning after the 2007 semi-final. Frenchmen from Ibanez to the IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset fell over themselves to wish England well for the final with South Africa. Of course it may just have been France putting a brave face on another defeat.
Le Crunch: World Cup history
England 19 France 10 (1991 quarter-final, Paris)
Serge Blanco punching Nigel Heslop, Mickey Skinner slamming into Marc Cécillon and going nose to nose with Eric Champ, Will Carling's try and France coach Daniel Dubroca manhandling the referee, David Bishop. Ah, happy days.
England 9 France 19 (1995 third-place play-off, Pretoria)
A match too far for some England players shattered by the semi-final defeat to New Zealand. But tries by Olivier Roumat and Emile Ntamack helped France break a hoodoo of no win over England since 1988.
England 24 France 7 (2003 semi-final, Sydney)
Don't they have rain in Toulouse? The weather-worried French were washed away by Jonny Wilkinson's stunning goal-kicking. Frédéric Michalak was flaky at fly-half and the vaunted back row of Olivier Magne, Imanol Harinordoquy (aka 'Harry Ordinary') and Serge Betsen were overpowered by an English unit including Richard Hill.
England 14 France 9 (2007 semi-final, Paris)
An early try by Josh Lewsey when Damien Traille dithered gave France the heeby-jeebies and a bristling pack performance, Joe Worsley's tap tackle on Vincent Clerc and two penalties and a drop by dear old Jonny dumped the hosts out.
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