Pride at stake for French
Auckland - After hitting rock bottom last week, the French squad has regrouped and will be playing for national pride and a Rugby World Cup semi-final spot when it takes on archrivals England on Saturday.
France's form and confidence bottomed out after a shocking 19-14 defeat to Tonga last weekend.
The players held a somewhat heated afternoon debriefing session the following day where players were able to express a few home truths and clear the air, followed by a more intense training session than usual on Monday.
Now, the reinvigorated French players are speaking with determination about facing their archrivals England.
"There's a lot of motivation, everyone wants to try and save our honor in this match," Lionel Nallet said Wednesday.
"We still have a right to believe. We're still here."
Nallet, who will win his 68th cap on Saturday, says that the time for sulking is over and the players must now "stop asking questions, stop saying that training's too long, stop saying that things aren't going well."
Two things seem to have changed since the Tonga defeat.
Firstly, the players got together on Sunday afternoon to share a few beers and get things out in the open.
"We spoke among men, and told each other things," France lock Julien Pierre said.
"Maybe that's what was missing since we arrived, working for the team and for the jersey. It's a shame that we need to have our backs to the wall to respond."
"French culture, not just (French) rugby is like this," scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili added.
Nallet thinks the players were being too nice, steering clear of criticism for fear of upsetting one another.
"We live together, we like each other, and maybe we didn't want to be aggressive toward one another," Nallet said. "We weren't aggressive on the field, either."
The no-holds barred bonding session Lievremont had hoped for on Saturday night finally took place on Sunday afternoon, and it appears to have done the players a lot of good.
"Everyone wanted to say 'I got it wrong.' Since we've arrived in New Zealand we haven't had the mentality (required) to conquer anything whatsoever," Nallet said. "Everyone wanted to take their share of the blame and tell the others they will be ready this weekend."
Secondly, Monday's hard-tackling training session helped players vent a lot of the frustration that had been building since a scrappy opening win against Japan.
"Training sessions where everyone's going fast, everything's happening more quickly, less balls are dropped on the ground," Nallet said. "Everyone got involved yesterday, it was aggressive. There weren't too many defensive mistakes."
The patchy performance against Japan was more than a one-off lapse. It exposed deep flaws and an alarming lack of intensity that recurred later against Canada, New Zealand and — finally — when Tonga bullied a weak France team all over the field in Wellington.
Some of the French players have tried to compensate for a lack of commitment by overplaying their hands, causing unforced handling errors, and this backfired against Tonga.
"The Tonga match was a collective failure. We didn't put enough heart into it and got things wrong. Now this match is behind us," Yachvili said. "The mood has changed a lot, we talked a lot together this week. We didn't train for three months together to stop at the quarterfinal. We may never play again in the quarterfinal of the World Cup. That's our motivation."
The collective rallying cry is an encouraging sign for coach Marc Lievremont and his captain, flanker Thierry Dusautoir. They had been the ones taking all the heat for France's performances, and were becoming too isolated.
"It's difficult for Thierry. I've also been (France) captain, it's hard when you lose and you go before the press without any explanation," Nallet said.
"He takes things personally, because he wants to lead the team to victory and doesn't always get the response required. There are a few veterans in the team who need to support him."
Englishman David Ellis, France's defense coach, has witnessed a hardening of attitude among the players.
"They wanted to make sure there was a good feeling within the camp. You can only do that to a certain point, and then what you've got to do is stand up and say that's not good enough, the standards aren't good enough."
"A lot of that has got to come from the players. England in 2007, when the players stood up to Brian Ashton and said 'we want this, we want that, we're going to do this, we're going to do that.' The England players gave their response."
France's players have now done likewise.
"They've taken the lead. They haven't taken anything out of the hands of the coaches, they've just taken more responsibility for their actions: the nonexistent actions of last week and the future actions of this coming weekend."