Rugby World Cup 2011: Losing To New Zealand Would Be Perfect For France

With both teams guaranteed to qualify, a loss for France could open up an easy route to the final and leave the All Blacks with a lot of work to do...
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With both teams guaranteed to qualify, a loss for France could open up an easy route to the final and leave tNew Zealand with a lot of work to do...

It is the game that should be the showpiece of the World Cup so far. Both amongst the favourites, on the one hand you have the free scoring and pacey All Blacks, empowered by the home advantage. On the other you have the bruising and brilliant, if not bewilderingly inconsistent, France. Both have unblemished records in the group stage so far and both are guaranteed qualification regardless of the result tomorrow.

Yet there is a lot more to this than would first meet the eye. The way results have gone in other groups, not least of all Ireland’s shock win over Australia, would mean that the winner of this match would have to face the Wallabies or reigning champions South Africa in the semi-finals. The loser, who would finish second in the group, would have a route to the finals clear of Southern hemisphere opposition.

Both coaches are painfully aware of this and already the mind games have begun, the New Zealand media striking first and accusing Marc Lièvremont of fielding a weakened team to ensure they can lose the game without losing face. The French coach has few friends in his native country either, having rotated his squad to the point where the players have been left dizzy only to then find the coach all too publicly vocal in his criticisms of them. The French media have wasted no time in pointing out that to play with losing in mind would be a dishonour that couldn’t be tolerated.

There’s definitely ammunition to be found when you look at the team selection ahead of the game. The scrum-half Morgan Parra has been picked at fly-half, a new position for him at international level. The monstrous hooker William Servat will be starting from the bench despite being the lynchpin of the front row. Imanol Harinordoquy, the only player from the Northern hemisphere to be shortlisted for the IRB player of the year, is also dropped. On the surface of things it is easy to see why the New Zealand herald have said that the team selection is a “farce”.

Lièvremont’s opposite number knows all too well that with the pressure of being the host nation, as well as having never lifted the trophy since it began, an easier route to the final is definitely to be desired. Although Graham Henry has not made any comment directly, the All Black forwards coach, Steve Hanson, implied that he shared the sentiments of the media with his dry “We'll treat them with the utmost respect, as we always do. We're just preparing as if it's the best French team that they could pick” jibe.

He’ll come in for criticism alright but losing this game might just be the start of a masterplan that could see France go all the way to the final and New Zealand, for all their bluff and bluster, know it.

Defeat for New Zealand will, of course, be unacceptable. The media has painted them into a corner now with their damning criticism of France, so they will have to field a strong team. The home crowd would accept nothing else. Hungry for revenge against a team that has twice ended their World Cup runs in the past, this game already had spice to it before the assumed French surrender. There’s also the small matter of sentimentality, the inspirational captain Richie McCaw earning his 100th cap, the first ever New Zealand player to do so. The occasion cannot be marked with a loss.

By contrast, with Lièvremont’s reputation as low as it can go both domestically and abroad, how can things get any worse. The reality is that even if he fielded his strongest team he could still lose, and by a significant margin, to a rampant All Blacks side. The consideration has to be what the long term cost could potentially be of such a fixture. Injuries to key players and it wouldn’t matter necessarily who was in the next round, France could find themselves going home. This way, the key players are fresh for the game and there’s still the dreadful prospect of them actually winning the match.

This certainly seems to be something that has been overlooked as a possibility by many in the media. When you send fifteen men out on the rugby field, regardless of reputation and ability they will bleed for the cause. No-one wants to lose, to be physically bested. When it happens there’s that uneasy moment for all the players, the sickening glimpse of themselves in a mirror knowing that they just weren’t good enough, that they were beaten by better men. Accepting defeat is never easy in a sport this physical because it doesn’t just say something about the tactics, about the preparation, about the luck. It says something about the competitor. There really is rarely anywhere else to lay the blame.

This is why there will be players looking to perform, to make their names synonymous with the shirt number they will temporarily don on the world’s biggest stage. If Lièvremont would consider winning to be some sort of massive tactical backfire, there are plenty of worse ways for the wrong to go wrong. Going into the next round with a selection headache isn’t a bad consolation prize, especially if it comes with a win over one of the world’s best teams.

Still, there can be no getting away from the fact that dodging the bigger names is a lot more desirable for France. Despite only achieving a runners-up spot in the most recent Six Nations they will feel a lot more comfortable against the likes of Wales or Ireland, regardless of how results go. This year they recorded wins over both of them, while somehow conspiring to lose to Italy by a single point in a show of disarray that has become the trademark of the team of late. Their last outing against Australia ended with a 59-10 drubbing, their last against South Africa a similar 42-17. Both of those were in 2010 when France went on to win the Grand Slam in the Six Nations tournament.

It’s no wonder New Zealand have felt the need to point all this out, to try and shame France into a side capable of victory. Recent games against Australia have been close, three of the last five having gone the way of the All Blacks but three of those fixtures were decided by five points or less. New Zealand’s pace and passing precision had traditionally been too much for the Springboks. They ran in 40 points against them in July this year. Yet their last encounter ended squarely in the favour of South Africa and with the hard hitting and disciplined defence it’s a fixture that, regardless of result, will see some casualties.

Right now Marc Lièvremont has few friends. None in the media, none in the opposition and perhaps even fewer than he should amongst his own players. Yet if he could get to a World Cup final that is likely to change, a method in his madness finally revealed in such a manner all could appreciate it. Well, maybe bar those who have paid for tickets for the match hoping to see a classic encounter filled with champagne rugby. Keep the champagne on ice – tomorrow is likely to bring few celebrations, whichever way it pans out.

It takes a special coach, some might argue a brilliant one, to pick a side that can compete, lose and still feel rightly proud. It certainly isn’t in the spirit of the game, it certainly isn’t anything that – in the short term at least – would make French bosoms swell with pride but the coach knows he’s a hate figure regardless. No-one will blame the squad, no-one will blame the All Blacks. They will place the blame solely at his feet. Yet it is up to leaders to make the difficult decisions, even the ones they find utterly repellant, for the good of the team, to ensure they can walk the path to success free from potential roadblocks.

He’ll come in for criticism alright but losing this game might just be the start of a masterplan that could see France go all the way to the final and New Zealand, for all their bluff and bluster, know it.

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