"I'm running on adrenalin," said Marc Lièvremont, the head coach of France, as he shared his thoughts ahead of today's semi-final with Wales – the sixth last-four tie in which Les Bleus have appeared, a feat of consistency matched only by New Zealand. "I keep telling myself that I can sleep in 10 days' time. I don't need much sleep anyway, but it is true that right now, I'm getting less than I require."
Lièvremont might be described as the most talked-about complete human being at this tournament. Other individuals have seen bits of themselves dominate the headlines – Daniel Carter's groin has been a particularly popular discussion point, as has Richie McCaw's fifth metatarsal – but the Frenchman has been assessed and analysed whole: mind, body and spirit. It is always the way when a Tricolore team succeed in bemusing everyone else. Why can't they behave like the rest of us, damn them? What gives them the right to be so mysterious?
They have not played well. Lièvremont himself is still talking about the "embarrassment" and the "frustration" he felt during the pool phase, when he saw his players cave in under All Black pressure and then lose, with spectacular ineptitude, to Tonga. "To win against Wales," he said, "the players need to hold on to the anger they felt at themselves at the end of the group stage. Yes, they played well in the first half against England, but they need more confidence, more faith in themselves now. The anger is the thing that will give them impetus."
There was much interest in the coach's late changes to his roster of replacements: Fulgence Ouedraogo, the athletic flanker from Montpellier who was born in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou, will replace Louis Picamoles for tactical reasons; the uncapped Toulouse back Jean-Marc Doussain comes in for David Marty because the Perpignan centre is unfit. "I trust Doussain completely," Lièvremont said when quizzed on his choice, which says much about his feelings towards some rather more seasoned figures in the squad.
But it was his opinion of James Hook, who will join Marty down there on the Franco-Spanish border at the end of this tournament, that raised most eyebrows. Asked whether Hook's installation at outside-half as a result of Rhys Priestland's shoulder injury might weaken the Welsh side, Lièvremont presented the alternative case. "The news that Hook is playing is not good news for us," he said. "Priestland is an excellent player, but it is undeniable that Wales will be stronger now. I think Hook is more of an all-round player and his experience will be very important to the youngsters in their team."
This is the first time the two nations, freakishly evenly matched over the course of a rivalry stretching back more than a century, have met on World Cup business. They have played 13 times since 2000 and for the most part, Les Bleus have had the wood on the Red Dragons: 11 victories, two defeats – the last a 29-12 reverse in Cardiff a little over three and a half years ago. It is not a record to fill the Welsh supporters here with optimism, leave alone the 60,000 or so expected to watch this morning's game at the Millennium Stadium. There again, there were no great expectations among the French followers when last weekend's quarter-final with England was set in motion.
It is impossible to call. While the French back division was clearly superior to the English version – Maxime Médard, Vincent Clerc, Aurélien Rougerie, Maxime Mermoz and Dimitri Yachvili would surely have found places in the red-rose line-up, even with Martin Johnson doing the selecting – the Welsh have their own game-breaking talents in the wings George North and Shane Williams, the centre Jamie Roberts, Hook at stand-off and Mike Phillips at scrum-half.
The last word belongs to Lièvremont. Asked whether he was feeling fear, he confessed: "Yes. I'm afraid of the Welsh."Reuse content