Lievremont's date with destiny
Auckland - Marc Lievremont's international playing career for France ended with a loss to Australia in the 1999 Rugby World Cup final. A dozen years later he is back in the final again, this time in his last match as coach of the national team.
Lievremont professes not to believe in superstition, but even he will see the symmetry of his two respective careers as player and coach. He'll stand down after Sunday's final against New Zealand, just as he quit international rugby after France had lost 35-12 in the 1999 final.
Win or lose at Eden Park, Lievremont will have certainly made an impression at the World Cup, not least for his straight-talking and sometimes ferocious assessment of his players - whom he recently described as "spoilt brats" after they went on a night out against his wishes.
A tough, athletic flanker, Lievremont was the team's best tackler during the '99 tournament, when it upset the odds to beat New Zealand 43-31 in the semi-final in what arguably ranks as France's most dazzling ever World Cup performance.
The turgid, scrappy 9-8 win over Wales in last weekend's semi-final will no doubt rank among the ugliest — but Lievremont said after that match that he "couldn't care less" how people perceived the current French team, slowly repeating the words "We ... are ... in ... the ... World ... Cup ... final" to emphasize that fact to his numerous detractors among the French press.
Lievremont played for France between 1995-99 in a team packed with exciting talents, like the turbocharged winger Christophe Dominici and a scrumhalf of exceptional vision in Fabien Galthie.
The fact France has not been able to reproduce its trademark flair has worked against Lievremont and given his critics ammunition — particularly at this tournament.
France began with scrappy wins against Japan and Canada before losing 37-17 to the All Blacks, and then slipping to a humiliating 19-14 loss to Tonga.
"Our match was littered with loose play, technical mistakes, errors of discipline," an unhappy Lievremont said after the Japan game. "Wastefulness in our finishing, wastefulness in our organization."
He even turned on established players such as loose forward Imanol Harinordoquy and flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc.
Harinordoquy's "conduct (against Japan) annoyed me," Lievremont said at the time. "We know his talent, and very often he was extremely amateurish in certain phases."
Trinh-Duc lost his starting place in the team to Morgan Parra, who Lievremont took the risk of converting from scrumhalf to No. 10.
Before the Canada match, Lievremont abruptly ended a news conference because he didn't like the line of questioning.
He then baulked at suspicions among some critics that France would be better served to purposely lose the pool match to New Zealand, in order to fall into the supposedly easier northern hemisphere side of the knockout draw, and that he had effectively picked a 'B' team — the supposed evidence of that being Parra's selection at No. 10.
He treated suggestions France might ease up against New Zealand with disdain and a relish for sarcasm that has proved his habitual form of defence throughout the tournament.
"Maybe the extremely favourable context would be a win against New Zealand this weekend, a prestigious win that assures our qualification, and then a horrible game against Tonga," he said. "A defeat that will please everyone, for those who say finishing second in the group is a godsend."
While France did not come close to beating New Zealand, the manner of the Tonga defeat horrified Lievremont.
"I thought I had experienced everything in terms of shame. But this time round, it's been an extremely violent feeling again," Lievremont said of France's worst World Cup defeat. "Each missed pass, each missed tackle, and I took them as a deep personal failure."
Lievremont added, the morning after that match: "We live in a society where image matters. I saw players with their agent on the eve and after the game instead of regrouping as a team."
He was so angry that he even compared his squad with the France football team that went on strike at last year's soccer World Cup, refusing to climb down from the team bus at a scheduled practice session in defiance of the coach.
People "laughed at the French football players last year. But in some respect, we didn't get off the bus either," he said.
Lievremont's man-management is unconventional, sometimes verging on brutal, but it also seems to have been effective.
Parra has glided with ease into his new position of flyhalf, kicking three nerveless penalties against Wales.
Lievremont also dropped Harinordoquy, one of the best loose forwards in the world, to the bench for two games.
Harinordoquy responded with a performance of incredible intensity when he was recalled in the quarterfinal win over England.
By beating England, France had finally turned the corner in terms of commitment — or so it seemed.
The peace in the camp lasted until a few hours after the win over Wales, when Lievremont went to bad in a bad mood, having found out several players had defied a curfew to go out late into the Auckland night.
Lievremont was waiting for them at breakfast.
"I told them what I thought of them," he said. "That they're a bunch of undisciplined, spoiled brats, disobedient, sometimes selfish, always complaining, always whining, and they've been (frustrating me) for four years."
"It seems to be our way of functioning," Lievremont went on to say. "I also told them I have a lot of affection for them, but it's a shame they don't know how to look after themselves."
Lievremont has been one of the characters of the tournament and international rugby will be a less colourful scene when he leaves.
He's already realized one dream.
"I've always been a great supporter of the All Blacks, playing the All Blacks in a final is something I dreamed about in my childhood," he said.
Now he just has to beat them.