Nallet leads resistance to criticism of Les Bleus
'We've been massacred' says lock as rancour between team and media continues in build-up to final showdown with All Blacks
Thursday 20 October 2011
Unchanged team, unchanged mood. France will start their World Cup final against the All Blacks this weekend with a scrum-half at outside-half and a squad wholly at loggerheads with the coach, Marc Lièvremont, whose latest round of verbal friendly fire – all that stuff about his players being "undisciplined and disobedient spoiled brats" – left so much smoke in the air, it was barely possible to see a player as substantial as the former captain Lionel Nallet yesterday as he responded to the public criticism.
"I didn't appreciate those words at all," said the Paris-based lock, who is expected to retire from international rugby after this competition, "but that's just my opinion. We have known since beating Wales that this week would be extremely complicated for us, so was there a reason for anyone to add to the pressure? We are in the final, yet we haven't had any recognition: instead, we've been massacred. I don't feel unsettled by this: I don't think it's serious, or even important. But there is a lot of pressure now and we have to come together as a group to try to deal with it. Will we respond positively, or negatively? Will it destabilise us? I don't know."
Nallet, whose performance against England in the quarter-finals was one of the key ingredients in the French victory, was not the only player to be heard ruminating over Lièvremont's second public outburst since his side's pool-stage defeat at the hands of Tonga at the start of the month. Maxime Mermoz, the young centre who has shown flashes of the midfield brilliance that prompted the coach to label him "undroppable" after only a handful of Test appearances, described the words as "harsh", but added: "The important thing now is that we respect ourselves and think clearly about what needs to be done to win this match. Sometimes, it is possible to use criticism to your advantage."
Together with the centre Aurélien Rougerie, the two answered questions for half an hour or so. At one point, their responses infuriated members of the French media to such a degree that both broadcasters and print journalists, some of them from world-renowned Parisian newspapers, left the room in protest. "I started my career in rugby journalism dealing with Jean-Pierre Rives and Serge Blanco," said one. "These people are not of the same stature, yet they criticise our line of questioning. For the French team to be in the World Cup final while leaving people like us wishing the tournament would end today... this is very sad."
Lièvremont reported that a number of his most influential players – the half-backs Morgan Parra and Dimitri Yachvili, the hooker William Servat, the flanker Julien Bonnaire, the No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy – missed most or all of training yesterday, although he stressed that they would be "on the field on Sunday at 9pm". As usual, much of the talk surrounded Parra, a career scrum-half recast as an international stand-off at the expense of the specialist No 10 François Trinh-Duc. "I think you can draw a comparison between Morgan and Aaron Cruden," said the coach, referring to the inexperienced New Zealand outside-half drafted into the hosts' squad following Daniel Carter's tournament-ending injury. "Neither of them has showed signs of having a complex about playing at this level."
Meanwhile, Australia will award their lock Nathan Sharpe a 100th Test cap in tomorrow's bronze-medal match with Wales at Eden Park. The Melbourne-born forward from Western Force has played second fiddle to Dan Vickerman during this competition, but with Vickerman in a state of disrepair following the Wallabies' semi-final defeat by the All Blacks, he has been selected to pack down alongside the captain James Horwill and therefore joins two fellow locks, Fabien Pelous of France and Victor Matfield of South Africa, in the century club.
"It's a great milestone and it's well deserved," said Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach. "Nathan is a class act, a great bloke to have in the group. He has a huge amount of respect from his peers, he's a master of the line-out – I'd say he and Matfield have been the two best exponents in that area over the last decade."
Deans now has at his disposal the kind of back division that might have threatened the All Blacks, with the brilliant attacking full-back Kurtley Beale fit to resume after missing the semi-final with hamstring trouble, Adam Ashley-Cooper restored to his optimum position of outside centre and Berrick Barnes bringing something fresh and unpredictable to the No 12 role. The bulk of the personnel changes are up front, where Ben McCalman and Scott Higginbotham start in the back row and a new front row of James Slipper, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Salesi Ma'afu at the sharp end.
Asked whether he might like to think of a way in which France could beat the All Blacks in the big game, Deans – a New Zealander who represented his country as a player and a coach in previous lives – struggled to come up with anything remotely positive. "What would I say to France? Good luck," he remarked. "My French isn't good enough to say too much more. When you look at the All Blacks' incentive, you look at the circumstance – where they're playing, the fact that they've been waiting for this day for some time – and you look at the profile of their group, I think 'good luck' is appropriate."
On the political front, the International Rugby Board has deferred the leadership election scrap between the incumbent chairman, Bernard Lapasset of France, and his vice-chairman, the former England captain and Lions manager Bill Beaumont, until December. Lapasset's four-year mandate ends on New Year's Day and he had initially been expected to stand down voluntarily. But in recent months he has drummed up a good deal of support for a second term, to the extent that straw-polling among the IRB council before yesterday's scheduled vote indicated a 50-50 split.
The delay may help Beaumont's cause, for a vote so soon after the England team's ignominious departure from these shores might have caused him difficulties. There again, the Rugby Football Union has its knickers in such a terrible twist over governance issues, the next six weeks or so could play directly into Lapasset's hands.
One RFU figure in the thick of the in-fighting at Twickenham in recent months, the chief disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett, has accused the Samoan centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu of "seeking martyrdom" by using Twitter to criticise the Welsh referee Nigel Owens in extreme terms after his country's narrow defeat by South Africa. Fuimaono-Sapolu was given a six-month ban, suspended for two years provided he agrees to a number of strict conditions, and is currently considering his future in the game.
Yesterday, Blackett's full judgement was published. It included an acknowledgement that while Fuimaono-Sapolu's verbal assault on Owens was wholly unjustified, it "may have been unwise for a Welsh referee to be appointed to a match, the result of which had a direct impact on Wales' progress in the tournament, for reasons of perception".
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