Sunday, 2 October 2011

They think it's Gaul over as France repeat the sins of their footballing cousins: Shame, failure, disappointment. And those are the positives.

Just when French fans thought things couldn't get any worse than their showing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, along comes a side playing with the odd-shaped ball intent on casting even further shame on a proud sporting nation.

Gauling indeed. The parallels are considerable. In South Africa last year, a squad riven by divisions and managed by a man due to be replaced after the tournament (the controversial Raymond Domenech knew Laurent Blanc was leaving before the tournament) lost to lowly ranked hosts Bafana Bafana and went home in disgrace.

This time the unloved Lièvremont has seen his Les Bleus slip into a Rugby World Cup quarter-final berth to play England despite defeat against minnows Tonga, but he is little happier than Domenech was last year, when the President got involved in a post-tournament inquiry.

Yesterday Lievremont – who will be replaced by Philippe Saint-Andre after the World Cup - said of his nation’s most embarrassing rugby defeat: "Never has qualification tasted as bitter as this. We have to refocus on the quarter-finals and talk about our pride, solidarity and honesty.

“I thought I had experienced everything in terms of shame. But this time round, it's been an extremely violent feeling again. Each missed pass, each missed tackle, I took them as a deep personal failure.

"I would have liked for us to gather around a few drinks yesterday, to talk, to share thoughts, to tell each other that it's a beautiful adventure, all things considered. And I was disappointed.

“I got us some beers to release the pressure and we all split in different directions. It's a kind of disappointment."

Lievremont said of the agents –fortunate to work in a domestic set-up without a salary cap like the other Northern Hemisphere nations - who frequent his camp: "I've got respect for them and think highly of them, I talk to them openly. I think it is reciprocal even though I am under no illusions.

“We live in a society where image matters. I saw players with their agents before and after the game instead of regrouping as a team. They have their career to manage, and the media to please. "

So who is French rugby’s openly rebellious Nicolas Anelka? Lievremont won’t say. But he did add: "French rugby laughed at the football team last year. But we didn't get off the bus either."

In the past Lievremont has refused to speak to the press, refused to resign and described his players as cowards. But after the Tongan humiliation, perhaps the greatest upset in Rugby World Cup history, he was simply at a loss.

Gloomily he growled: "For some, I might just be a second division coach, absolutely not competent to train a team of the level of the national squad. Some compare me with Raymond Domenech. You must know that I have got an immense respect for him.

"He did fight. I know what that means and I have absolutely no intention to give up. I've got my share of responsibilities, but do you sincerely think that it is because of my management that we failed to be committed in the game?"

There are other problems. Centre Aurélien Rougerie dislocated his shoulder against Tonga while his probable replacement, Fabrice Estebanez, has been cited for a dangerous tackle. And then there’s history. In both 2003 and 2007 England ended France’s World Cup progress. Lievremont summoned the last of his courage to tell a worried rugby nation: "Naturally, I am a fighter. I believe in this team, in a group of men who hopefully know how to pick themselves up."

Ouch. England, despite another plethora of off-field allegations and Delon Armitage’s citing after the narrow win over Scotland, are favourites to win the quarter-final in Auckland next Saturday. But with the French, who knows?

Lievremont clearly has no idea what to expect: “I have got experienced and talented players. But maybe not as talented as I thought. But I repeat. I have absolutely no intention of giving up.”

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