Auckland - The French players have hit back at claims they could resort to foul play in Sunday's Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand, with prop Nicolas Mas saying "the All Blacks are no angels, either."
Friday's edition of the New Zealand Herald carried a full page dedicated to examples of French brutality in rugby Tests dating back over 30 years. In his column under the headline "Beware the filth of the French," former All Blacks forward Wayne Shelford says to "beware French skullduggery" such as eye gouging.
Shelford, who was famously injured against France in 1986, claims there was foul play from the French in the 1999 semi-final and 2007 quarter-final wins against the All Blacks.
"They have resorted to some filth in past World Cups, including eye gouging," Shelford said. "They certainly did it in 1999, and there was probably a bit going on in 2007 as well."
Mas thinks the negative press is an attempt to put the French team off, and says the New Zealanders should remember how much blood was spilled in the All Blacks' semi-final win over Australia.
"I think they're trying to put us under pressure. But the All Blacks are no angels, either. The Australians all came off with bloody noses," Mas said Friday. "I don't think I have dangerous antecedents. I have never been shown the red card ... although there's still Sunday."
The Herald's story entitled 'A History Of Gallic Rugby' listed further examples of eye gouging and punching from French internationals dating back to 1977.
"I'm not sure we're really such bad boys. I'm not sure that there are big barbarians in this team, like they've said," hooker William Servat said. "Between the English who bring chambermaids up to their rooms and New Zealanders who go out on the eve of matches, I'm not sure we're the worst behaved lads."
Utility back Damien Traille thinks the negativity shown toward France hides the fears that New Zealanders have that France could create yet another almighty upset - just like they did in 1999 and 2007.
"It's strange, but I get the impression things have been reversed. Once they'd won the semifinal against Australia, here we go, they were champions," he said. "Now I think the pressure is on them. They're playing in a final at home, there's a lot of pressure. But I don't think the France team is particularly aggressive, we've had one yellow card."
Ironically, it was France on the receiving end of foul play in its semifinal win against Wales when Welsh flank Sam Warburton was red-carded for a dangerous tip-tackle on winger Vincent Clerc.
"The dark days have long gone. With the quality of the referees and the videos and things like that and the suspensions over the few years," France's defence coach David Ellis said. "Everybody thinks that the articles that come out like that are a little bit of a joke. It's just of no consequence to rugby today ... I suppose we could put together a 15 of some very unclean All Black players. What's the point?"
The fierce criticism seems to have brought the fragmented French team together in recent days. The days of bickering with coach Marc Lievremont appear to finally be over, and a steely resolve has enveloped the team.
"We're not here just to take part, we want to do something. Of course the All Blacks are favorites, of course the All Blacks win 90 percent of their games against France," Servat said. "But there's still a chance for us. Whatever the result, I hope we walk off feeling proud and tired."
Servat knows he and his fellow forwards will be tested like never before on Sunday.
"You beat them by playing with a lot of desire. When I saw them playing against Australia, you realize that they leave an impression on their opponents," he said. "The Australians came off injured one after the other ... half unconscious. It's not a case of strategy or techniques, it's a question of desire. It's a contact sport, a combat sport."
Ellis thinks the All Blacks still have nagging doubts about facing the French and this could work against them the longer France stays in the game on Sunday.
"It's quite an interesting phrase to use but ... deja vu," Ellis said. There are "certain signs of nerves from the public in general in New Zealand. I saw an article ... 97 percent of the public thought the All Blacks were going to win the game. Then there was another one that said 55 percent of them were frightened to death it was France they were playing in the final."
* RWC final odds on BET.CO.ZA: New Zealand vs France