A dozen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of a World Cup pool stage in which France had not so much underperformed as failed to perform at all, one of the great originals of Tricolore rugby – the scrum-half Fabien Galthié – decided that this was the time to make a stand: to seize the moment, the day, the initiative and pretty much anything else that was going. Two very fine coaches, Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux, were gently manoeuvred towards the margins; the Galthié-led insurgents took ownership of the project; France ran rings round New Zealand, jolly Jonah and all, on an electrifying afternoon at Twickenham; and as a result, they reached their second global final in four attempts.
Under the circumstances, the England party at this tournament might be forgiven for feeling just a little nervous at the thought of another true original – another scrum-half, indeed – emerging as the popularly-elected leader of a similarly out-of-sorts, off-colour, away-with-the-fairies French side who struggled to defeat Japan and were spanked by the All Blacks before being beaten by Tonga. The man in question? Dimitri Yachvili. Together with the Basque No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, alongside whom he plays at Biarritz, the goalkicking half-back is said by those who understand the forces currently at work in Les Bleus' camp to be the central figure in the build-up to this weekend's big game at Eden Park. Thierry Dusautoir, the back-row forward from Toulouse, may still be the captain, but he does not appear to be the man with the plan.
Quite where this leaves the head coach, Marc Lièvremont, is an open question, answered in a dozen different ways by a dozen different people associated with the French team, depending on their loyalties and alliances. Lièvremont, a Test flanker of considerable intelligence and one of the men who went to the barricades with Galthié in '99, was appointed to the top job after Bernard Laporte failed to make home advantage count in the 2007 competition. He was guaranteed a full four-year term and he set about making the most of it: by the end of 2008, he had selected more than 50 players at full international level; at the last count, that figure had risen to 82. Can it really be the case that after all the experimentation – the mixing and matching, the chopping and changing, the reorganising and recalibrating – he has ended up here, in the last eight of a World Cup, with a side that is no longer his?
Yesterday, Lièvremont put in a public appearance at the team hotel to announce the starting line-up – Harinordoquy back at No 8, Nicolas Mas back at prop, Morgan Parra still at outside-half, where he plays once in a blue moon at club level; Maxime Médard at full-back ahead of Cédric Heymans and Damien Traille – and to stress that it was his idea to give the senior players, most notably Yachvili, more of a voice. "The responsibility for what has happened here is a mixed responsibility: I look at myself, I look at the players," he remarked. "But when we are in a match, I am not the one on the pitch. I have my input into this team, but when there is no commitment on the field ... this is when you lose to Tonga. So now, it is about spirit, not about tactics or technique, but about pride. And I want the leaders in the team to take charge of this aspect.
"A lot of things have happened since the weekend and I'm the first to regret that we've waited until our backs are against the wall to react. It's up to the players to unite now: I've shared some moments, but sometimes you have to leave them because while I'm here to accompany them and encourage them, it's their adventure. We haven't been brilliant, but I'm convinced there will be a reaction and I hope it's enough to get us through. There's stress and there's pressure – we haven't earned the right to good humour and we haven't shown joy on the field like the Tongans and the Samoans. I hope, though, that our best is to come."
Fine words: clear, logical, honest. But others see the situation very differently. "To me," said one highly respected chronicler of French rugby yesterday, "there is no one in control. It is like a wild, crazy chariot – there is no direction, no one deciding on the way ahead. Lièvremont is not popular with the players and while Dusautoir is definitely respected, he is not a strong leader. Since November, we have lost by 60 points to Australia, lost in Italy, lost to the Tongans. These are not the results of a team with good leadership. England showed at the last World Cup that even with no game plan, strong men can drive you forwards. The strong men in this French team have not yet stood up."
Lièvremont's selection policy, if indeed it can be so described, has been extraordinary. Appointed from the nearest thing professional-level French rugby has to a wilderness – he was coaching in the second division with Dax when the call came – he talked a brilliant game at first: his team would attack from all areas of the field and at all possible times; his players would be encouraged to shed their inhibitions; self-expression would be the watchword. Three fresh talents emerged almost immediately and were seen as the gold seam of the new side: the scrum-half Parra, the stand-off François Trinh-Duc and the unusually rapid flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo. "We called them his 'three sons', he was so keen on playing them," recalled another seasoned observer of Les Bleus' affairs. "Where are they now? Parra is playing in an unfamiliar position, Trinh-Duc is on the bench, Ouedraogo is here, but not here. He is not involved at all."
So it was that France arrived here with no discernible pecking order. Harinordoquy, one of the few forwards in the world with a reputation as an outright matchwinner, was dropped after the struggle with Japan and publicly criticised by the coach, while Parra was promoted ahead of Trinh-Duc, to the mystification of virtually everyone. Now, the two specialist No 8s in the party – Louis Picamoles and Raphaël Lakafia – have been ditched simultaneously so Harinordoquy can work closely with Yachvili at the base of the scrum.
It is said that last weekend, Yachvili suggested a long Sunday lunch – that is to say, a lunch of the liquid variety – at the team hotel in Wellington as a way of rinsing the humiliation of the previous afternoon's loss to Tonga out of the collective system. Lièvremont had tried to do something similar the previous evening, without any noticeable success, and succeeded only in isolating himself further by lambasting his players from the rooftops of the capital.
"I prefer it when words like those stay inside the team room, strictly between the players and the coach," Harinordoquy said yesterday. "It is not a problem when a coach criticises his players but I'm not happy when I read things and not hear them. But this is not the time to be looking back at what has happened – at the previous games, or the words that have been spoken. When you stir the shit, you sink into the shit. Already, there is too much shit in our heads.
"This will be the most important match of my career. Twice, in 2003 and in 2007, I played against England in a World Cup semi-final and twice I lost. They always bring us the bill, I think; they always make us pay. I do not want to experience it for a third time, so it is the moment to be a leader. All of us must lead.
"Of course, we haven't played well. But to make a quarter-final without playing well ... we can hold on to this in the hope that the competition will begin for us on Saturday. Everything will become clear then. This game could make the difference for everybody: for the players, for the supporters, for France."
There have been times in the past when Harinordoquy has been quick to express his dislike of England – or at least, of English rugby. Here, the subject barely registers on his consciousness. "It is always an intense fight when we play them, but for this game we must think only of ourselves," he said. Might the well-documented issues surrounding les rosbifs, both on and off the field, offer a little encouragement to France? "We're not here to think of their problems," came the abrupt reply.
It is, all things considered, quite a prospect: a quarter-final between an England team unable to behave and a French team impossible to second-guess. The unspeakable in pursuit of the unfathomable.
Short history of England v France in the world cup
13 Oct 2007 (Paris): France 9-14 England
Despite being underdogs against the hosts, England won this semi-final. Josh Lewsey scored an early try but France led 9-5 before Johnny Wilkinson kicked the red rose into the lead. They held on to end the home dreams of Les Bleus.
16 Nov 2003 (Sydney): England 24-7 France
An off-colour Frédéric Michalak missed four from five kicks in this semi-final, while Wilkinson kicked all of England's points on a rainy night. Christophe Dominici and Serge Betsen went to the sin bin to hamper France's attempts to win. England went on to win the final.
22 June 1995 (Pretoria): England 9-19 France
England had won the previous eight meetings over the past seven years and were firm favourites in this third-fourth place play-off. But their experienced line-up came second best to France.
19 October 1991 (Paris): France 10-19 England
A brutal quarter-final in which Mick Skinner (left) and Eric Champ went eye to eye. Skinner's heavy tackle on Marc Cecillon turned the tide in England's favour. The mayhem continued when French coach Daniel Dubroca attacked the ref in the tunnel.
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