Rugby World Cup 2011
Zzzz...France flop into final
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
French flops (AFP Photo)
Cape Town – Consistent only for their rank mediocrity, France have become the first side to book their place in next Sunday’s RWC 2011 showpiece.
And whilst you can never, ever dismiss the French capacity for surprise, they have probably only added to the motivation levels of New Zealand and Australia -- awaiting their own seismic semi-final this Sunday (10:00 SA time) -- to crack the nod as other primary guests at the grand climax.
For you have got to think that if some semblance of justice is to be served at this tournament – and many embittered South Africans believe this has already whistled right out of the window – Thierry Dusautoir’s modern French dullards will be mercifully and convincingly disposed of by either of the Antipodean giants.
I emphasise “modern” because I mean absolutely no disrespect to some marvellous French teams and individuals of the past. This bunch, you see, are overwhelmingly unfit to lace the various boots of predecessors.
How France have made it all the way this time is a mystery wrapped in an enigma and all tied up by a fraying piece of string: the only thing you can say is that they have stuck to habit by getting to the final every 12 years!
I suppose there is a case for arguing that a bunch of strugglers reaching it is part of the “charm” of World Cup sporting tournaments broadly.
But I am not at all excited about their presence in the Auckland final, save for a certain element of curiosity -- if they play New Zealand, it is an opportunity to see whether the RWC hoodoo they boast over the All Blacks can somehow be extended.
France’s semi-final squeeze-out job on Wales on Saturday will forever be remembered for the losing team’s crippling 62 minutes without their captain, Sam Warburton, rightly but still cruelly red-carded for a clear tip-tackle on Vincent Clerc.
It was all about poor execution rather than malice from the open-side flank, who had been one of the candidates for player of the tournament before his moment of out-of-the-blue folly ... you almost wished there was, say, a “half an hour in the sin bin option”, somewhere between the limited sanction of yellow and much more sweeping effect of red.
Keep in mind that his staff-shortening offence also came just eight minutes after the Welsh had also surrendered their iconic, frizzy-haired scrummaging anchorman Adam Jones to a calf injury.
And yet for all this, France could only grind out three Morgan Parra penalties and suffered the additional embarrassment of conceding the game’s only try to Mike Phillips despite their numerical advantage for so long.
Had the trio of Welsh place-kickers employed on the night been just a morsel more productive off the tee – in Leigh Halfpenny’s case his late, likely game-shifting long ‘un dipped inches below the crossbar – the final would at least have been guaranteed to be graced by at least one team to have shown invention and relish from the start of the event.
As former All Black scrumhalf Justin Marshall contrastingly noted in commentary: “France aren’t asking any questions ... they’ve not contributed to this game.”
When you think about it, how much have they contributed to the entire tournament?
They were the least compelling of all the second-place finishers in group play, ending a yawning nine points behind New Zealand in Pool A (including experiencing a 37-17 dismantling by them) and disgracing their flag, frankly, by losing to the minnows of Tonga whose population would only twice fill a large rugby stadium.
This France side boasts certain reasonably adhesive, workmanlike qualities at times, it is true.
But it chronically lacks true crowd-pleasers ... there is no outrageously impulsive Blanco to ooh and aah over, no Dominici, Ntamack or Lafond to ghost pleasurably through a half-gap, no Rives to wear blood like an eternal badge on his jersey and inspire through weight of heart rather than mass on the scale.
Nor is there even an Olivier Merle-like master of skulduggery in the 2011 engine room, to at least get you a bit hot under the collar about.
But France are in the final, croon or curse as you wish.
I know which school of thought I lean toward ... even if their hitherto lacklustre plot has one last, jaw-dropping twist.