James Lawton: France's resurrection lies at the heart of tournament rewriting the rules of reality

France escaped an exit that would have left them a shell of a sporting nation
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The Independent Online

He was elderly and somewhat frayed but he spoke for all the smart young things shouting and laughing and waving their Tricolores and blowing their car horns down Boulevard Montparnasse when he rose, just a little unsteadily, from his cafe table, held up a more than half-filled glass of red wine, and declared, "Vive la France!"

Then, after a reflective pause, he added, with another upward tilt of his wine, "Vive le rugby."

The second toast was crucial because it perfectly reflected, after a frankly unpromising start, the greatest achievement of this sixth World Cup of rugby.

On a weekend when with a kind of savage beauty it had utterly rearranged the game's hierarchy of power, sent the brilliantly organised teams of New Zealand and Australia teetering into the gutter, confirmed the progress of Argentina to their first semi-final and laid the first serious doubts in the hearts of the team of the tournament, South Africa, the World Cup that somehow so recently had seemed too small, too marginal, was suddenly a giant.

It was a giant in the matter of reminding us, match by match, shove by shove, maul by maul, how sport at the highest level should be waged – and supported.

It said that big-time sport did not have to be disfigured by bitter cynicism and fans with an agenda from the dark ages. Gone, too, was the calculated brutality that periodically defaces rugby. No one could have played more ferociously than the England pack in Marseilles as it turned the Australian challenge into dust, but then if no quarter was given no atrocities were committed.

Four out of four superb quarter-finals is a remarkable tally when the pressure is cranked up so ferociously and when, at the equivalent stage of a World Cup of football, the cheating, you know as surely as night follows day, comes on the most disagreeable of flood tides.

If you drew up a wish list for a weekend of any sport you could not have improved upon events in Paris and Marseilles. You couldn't have hoped for better competition – or a better ambience. You couldn't have exorcised more profoundly the rancid memory of what happened the last time an England national sports team came to Provence – in the football World Cup of '98 – and their fans spilled into the old harbour with so much pent-up virulence they might have been coming off plague ships.

This time in the port there were exultant English and downcast Aussies – but a mute acceptance that in sport sometimes there is the narrowest dividing line between win and loss.

Yes it is true, there have to be doubts about the size of the current tournament, and the worry that some teams came not as authentic competitors but cannon fodder with all the prospective discouragement that implies. But about the core of this and future World Cups, their capacity to grow stronger and provide rugby of unforgettable suspense and uplift, there is surely no longer any serious doubt.

France's extraordinary victory over New Zealand in Cardiff – with all due respect to England's superb resurrection of the idea that they were more than time-expired champions of the world – was the supreme gift because not only did it rescue the life of the hosts and reanimate the streets of Paris and those cities of the nation's rugby heartland, it removed the one serious blemish that had come to haunt the organisers.

That France, as a result of the politicking they felt was necessary to land the prize, had exposed themselves to the possibility of losing their own World Cup on Welsh soil was a matter that threatened more than defeat; if not national dishonour at least a degree of carelessness that would have amounted to a disaster of both organisation and failed pride.

Instead, France survived an exit that would have left them a shell of a sporting nation as the semi-finals and final were played out over the next two weeks.

It is bad enough to go down on your own soil, as anyone who was in Naples in 1990 can confirm. When the Azzurri were beaten by the injury-weakened remnants of the 1986 football champions, Argentina, a team buoyed largely by the will if not the form of Diego Maradona, Italy could have been only marginally less becalmed, or depressed, by the calling of a national strike. In Germany last summer, when Italy brilliantly inflicted upon the hosts the fate imposed upon them by Argentina, it was as though someone had lowered a curtain on a nation that had rarely found such a confident, and amiable, stride.

But France perishing in Wales would have been a grim misadventure on so many levels, not least when it would inevitably have been compared with the glory achieved by their football compatriots in 1998, when the nation celebrated more passionately than at any time since Charles de Gaulle marched down the Champs-Elysées so impervious to the threat from the German snipers scuffling across the rooftops and in the church towers.

Now the French rugby men pursue such a prospect with a belief and a confidence that has surely come full circle since the opening-game nightmare against Argentina.

What they achieved in Cardiff was less spectacular than their defeat of the All Blacks in the 1999 semi-final at Twickenham. It was less about fantasy than the growing sense that they had within them the ability to absorb the best of a New Zealand team which according to the oddsmakers were finally proofed against the failures of the past. But, of course, no team ever carries such insurance and those who have always believed in the ability of the French to remake themselves in the course of a single match surely knew they were right when Frédéric Michalak, the current embodiment of the French enigma, made his extraordinary run on the All Black line.

His sense that it was precisely the time to turn and pass into the hands of a team-mate was, in its way, as sublime a mark of genius as the kick which so ravaged Irish hearts in the final pool game that kept alive a French rugby ambition that is once more touching the surreal.

The Fijians, conquerors of Wales, did something that was far beyond the now revived English in a pool game just a few weeks earlier. They made the Springboks hint at vulnerability, they said that here was another rugby machine from the southern hemisphere that just might, in the heat of an ambush, be less awesome than we may have imagined.

There were times against Scotland when you had to wonder about the limits of Argentine resolve. There are only so many great performances, over a limited time, in any team, and the South Africans, marshalled so brilliantly by the awareness of Fourie du Preez seem particularly well equipped, with their speed and their clinical authority up front, to explore this theory.

France v England, in the other semi-final, is perhaps the most profound statement of all about the mysteries and the eddies of form and confidence that have carried us to an entirely different level of expectation. What the English did against Australia was nothing less than one of the most remarkable works of transformation we have seen in English sport since Sir Alf Ramsey's England football team was booed off at Wembley a month before being crowned champions of the world.

Brian Ashton's men remain a considerable way from such a mountain peak when you consider how recently, and how unpromisingly, they inhabited the foothills, but then already the World Cup of rugby has suspended the more pressing rules of reality.

Argentina should have been dumped into touch by the French and Brian O'Driscoll's Ireland.

Australia should have high-kicked their way past an English team ransacking their memories for mere competence. The All Blacks should still be powering towards a long delayed celebration of their endless ability to reanimate a great rugby tradition.

But all that would have been about logic and sweet reason. The sixth World Cup has reminded us, more than anything else, that real life isn't always like that. Sometimes it goes in a brilliant direction all of it's own. So, yes indeed, my old friend, vive le rugby – and, of course, vive la vie.

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