James Lawton: Man with Hollywood looks is yearning for perfect ending


In a little more than 72 hours Marc Lièvremont may have stunned the rugby world. He may have moved from the low ground of controversy to the uplands of pure legend.

At this moment, though, he is standing beneath a ball that has been hoisted high by one of his coaching assistants.

It is one of the Lièvremont rituals that so often suggest a man congenitally apart, this session of kicking and catching while his frequently malcontent players loosen up at the other side of the training field for a little serious work before Sunday's World Cup final with the All Blacks.

The wet ball hangs and drops through the French head coach's hands and if you are looking for a discouraging portent this might just be one – except for the fact that this is a day when the man with old-style Hollywood looks is in quite crackling form, wry, philosophical and refusing to reject the idea that possibly, just possibly, something quite extraordinary might happen at Eden Park.

He kicks away the ball with a shrug and is soon at the centre of a great huddle of players. When he speaks, on this occasion at least, every one of them is listening.

A few hours earlier, back across the Harbour Bridge in the team's city-centre hotel, he broadcast to the world the message he is giving his players now.

This says that only a Herculean improvement on the performance against Wales last weekend will create the beginnings of a winning effort against a New Zealand team he has never held in greater respect.

He was asked if France could win the World Cup in the same way they beat Wales in the semi-final. "No, I don't think so," he dead-panned.

"You know," he adds, "I always expect the best of the All Blacks. They were exceptional in the semi-final against Australia, aggressive, dominating and they were playing their best rugby. No, I was not surprised. It is a combat sport and we know the rivalry between those teams.

"I'm not sure it helps us at all that they are such favourites. We are in the final match and every time we play them it is the same thing. They are always the favourites – and all I can say is that I believe in my team – and I believe they can win."

For the 42-year-old born in Senegal, the son of a French army man, it is not an idea clutched from outside of his experience. Twelve years ago he was a member of the French team which beat the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final at Twickenham, a match which many believed was the best they had ever seen.

Christophe Lamaison inspired a staggering eruption of spirit and flair after it appeared that all French hope had gone. Lièvremont was merely an extremely resolute flanker but the glory of it is still in his blood.

"I am certainly appreciating this week," he says. "The match against England was a very important week for us, as was last week. This week is no more or less important but I try to tell myself that I am a very privileged person."

That was not his overwhelming sensation in the wake of the desperate victory over Wales when half the players broke ranks and went out to celebrate a triumph that Lièvremont, the coach who seeks perfection, believed was so bad that someone must have been watching over his team. He railed against the indiscipline of "spoiled brats" but yesterday he was the pragmatist again. "I think I said those things to put pressure on the players – and then when I read my words I thought, 'I guess I could have stayed silent'. Now we have to concentrate on our solidarity and our aggression."

In and around the French camp, a conclusive verdict on the coach will no doubt await Sunday's result. Until then he occupies the ground that separates two former national football coaches – Aimé Jacquet who delivered the World Cup of 1998 and created in the Champs Elysées the kind of celebration last seen at the Liberation and Raymond Domenech, whose chronic eccentricity helped provoke a full-scale mutiny at last year's World Cup in South Africa.

Many in France remain convinced that Lièvremont is still closer to Domenech. They do not include, however, Jo Maso, the old French international and long-time manager of team affairs.

"Marc may not always be a great communicator," he said yesterday, "but he is a good coach. He has taken France to the World Cup final and in two or three years' time people will remember only that. I worked with coaches like Jean Claude Skrela, Pierre Villepreux and Bernard Laporte and it's the same thing. In '99 I remember there was criticism about the lack of attacking play yet after we won the semi-final everyone said they were great coaches.

"Marc is a strong man with beliefs and the courage to express them. He has strong principles and sometimes people, including players, don't want to hear. But he lets them know anyway and he has come through. Now, whatever is said we are here at the final, all of us together for France. He has brought us here."

As Lièvremont opens his lesson for the day, the French close the doors on their work out at Takapuna Rugby Club. But not before Imanol Harinordoquy claims the centre of the stage.

The Basque No 8, who played so magnificently against England in the quarter-final, is potentially the most striking evidence that some of Lièvremont's open warfare with the dressing room has had a hard and successful purpose. The No 8 is talking softly now but also with something resembling zeal.

"He has always wanted the players to produce their best and always tried to give them a sense of responsibility for their own performance," says Maso. Certainly the mind games he played with Harinordoquy earlier in the tournament produced the optimum result against England. By leaving him to cool on the bench in the pool stage, the coach provoked a huge appetite for the action.

Now he has to stoke other fires. Has he rehearsed his latest call to arms? "I am usually a spontaneous person and I have not prepared anything specific. From what I can tell, I don't think the All Blacks believe they have already won the final. Maybe their supporters think so.

"Against the All Blacks you always have to pay most attention to detail, every detail, because it is one of the things they do best. No, I don't feel personal pressure

"I look at the game and I see that 15 players in black and 15 in white (the French having already agreed that on their own soil, at this time, New Zealand must wear black) will come on the field and the best team will win."

Perhaps, after all, he has done a little work on his pre-game speech. Maybe he was doing it when he dropped the high ball. One thing is already certain. He is not the easiest man to knock out of a game and this might just include the one that may well define the rest of his days.

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