There are mutual admiration societies sprouting up all over the place ahead of Saturday's World Cup semi-final between France and Wales, the most evenly-matched teams, statistically speaking, in the whole of international rugby. A few hours after Shaun Edwards, the Red Dragons defence coach, had thrown roses in the direction of Les Bleus' influential half-back Dimitri Yachvili, the man from Biarritz could be heard praising the barnstorming Cardiff centre Jamie Roberts to the high heavens. "Roberts is their key player," Yachvili said, in reverential tone. "He is the man who can change the momentum of the game."
Then there was Dave Ellis, the man responsible for constructing the French barricades in this competition, talking about the aforementioned Edwards, his opposing defence strategist. "I mean no disrespect to the other defence coaches in the international game," he remarked, "but Shaun is the one I respect the most. We both come from the north of England, from rugby league backgrounds, and we see each other now and again. Not socially, but we tend to cross paths around the England club scene and have a word when the opportunity arises. I think he's good at what he does. Very good."
On the face of it, there is something of the killjoy spirit about this last outburst of veneration: why talk of mere defence when Wales, who have produced more than their fair share of exhilarating running rugby over the last five weeks, are meeting the French, with their penchant for attacking in a style unique to themselves? Yet the D-word is on the lips of each and every player and coach as the round of heartbreak draws near. Les Bleus may have put two tries past England in their quarter-final, but their victory had at least as much to do with denying Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood so much as a single penalty shot at the sticks.
"We thought long and hard about that – we made it a priority," said Ellis, who served under Bernard Laporte at the last World Cup and has been at the side of current head coach Marc Lièvremont through this current cycle. "When we saw they were coming into the game with two kickers, that we would be facing a double-barrelled enemy, we knew we had to be squeaky clean. Wilkinson hadn't been kicking well, but his goals had been crucial in England's semi-final victory over France in 2003 and '07. Flood? He'd been hitting the spot really well and was clearly a danger. We saw it as an opportunity to raise our defensive effort to a new level and it was very satisfying to succeed."
Defence matters. In four of the six completed World Cups to date, the least generous team won the title: New Zealand in the inaugural 1987 tournament, Australia in '91 and '99, the Springboks in '95. And while this rule of thumb has not held true of late – England, the 2003 champions, were second in the defensive table, while South Africa were third four years ago – it remains at the top of the coaching agenda. Before the 2007 World Cup, All Black coach Graham Henry said: "If we have to play defensively to win this title, I'd rather not win it." Which he didn't. To the best of anyone's knowledge, that sentence has not passed his lips since.
As things stand, the Wallabies have the tightest defence: they conceded only four tries during the pool stage and shut out the Springboks last weekend, despite yielding God's amount of possession and territory. Likewise, Wales conceded only a single try per pool game; however, they let the Ireland wing Keith Earls sneak in at the corner in the quarter-final in Welllington. New Zealand? For all Henry's change of heart they are not watertight, although seven breaches of their line in five games is not a hanging offence. France have comfortably the worst record, having been broken nine times during a comically inept performance in the group phase and twice more by England at Eden Park, yet it is they who have made the biggest stride in discipline.
Like Wales, the French have taken to tackling low and bringing opponents to ground: something bigger, more physically powerful sides tend to pooh-pooh in favour of comprehensive upper-body smashes designed to dislodge the ball and present turnover opportunities on a plate. It is commonly assumed that the Welsh will have an advantage in this area, because they have a nose-to-the-ground, truffle-hunting breakaway flanker in Sam Warburton – the kind of player seldom seen in the Tricolore game. But as Ellis said with a shrug: "When you have Thierry Dusautoir and Julien Bonnaire in your back row, you don't need to worry too much. People have talked a lot about the amount of progress made by Wales over this tournament, and I acknowledge they're very efficient now, but I believe we have made a lot of progress in a very short space of time. A large part of the reason is that the players have taken responsibility, firstly for the things they did wrong during the pool stage and secondly for the process of putting those things right. Yes, Damien [Traille, the multi-purpose back] and Imanol [Harinordoquy, the brilliant No 8] said what they said about Marc because they didn't like being criticised in public. But what Marc said was honestly felt, and what has come out of it is positive."
Ellis believes there is another element at work here: memory. "A lot of these players were on the field when England beat them in Paris at the semi-final in 2007, and some were involved when the same happened in Sydney in '03," he said. "I haven't heard much talk about it, but it's in the backs of their minds, definitely. It's a motivating factor."
France feel the force is with them, especially as Yachvili returned to training yesterday, the haematoma on his thigh no longer a serious threat to his participation. "The contusion started bleeding," he said. "Now the wound has closed and is healing well, although there is a possibility that I won't do the goal-kicking. I spent three days recuperating and they were long days. I slept a lot and watched television, but mostly I watched video clips of Wales because there is a lot of analysis to be done. It's important that the players are accountable. We have taken things into our own hands now. It is something we should have done long ago."Reuse content