Poor France. Rarely can a team have reached a Rugby World Cup final and yet still found themselves on the receiving end of so much ill-will as has been directed at ‘Les Bleus’ ahead of Sunday’s showpiece match against New Zealand here at Eden Park.
Other teams win or lose games and are judged accordingly.
But only France could be accused of “betraying” their entire rugby heritage.
And that charge was levelled not after a defeat, but Saturday’s 9-8 semi-final win over Wales.
The curious thing is that most of the people accusing France of failing to remain true to themselves tend not to be called ‘Pierre’ but rather ‘Peter’.
In one his most famous speeches Charles de Gaulle, the late French President, declared “all my life, I’ve had a certain idea of France” and there’s no doubt the same concept applies to many ‘Anglo-Saxon’ observers’ view of French rugby.
No-one would pretend the way France just scraped past Wales, who scored the only try of the match after their captain, Sam Warburton, had been sent off, was one of the all-time great performances.
“I don’t care at all whether it was a good match or not, whether the Welsh deserve to be in the final, we have qualified for the final and that’s all that counts,” France coach Marc Lievremont said, expressing a common view among men in his position.
Common that is, unless uttered by a Frenchman.
English rugby writer Peter Bills was damning.
“Wrong Monsieur; wrong, wrong, wrong. Only a fool and a very blinkered one at that, cheerfully betrays his nation’s rugby heritage for the ephemeral advantage of reaching a cup final,” Bills wrote in the New Zealand Herald.
But if many of the French players did seem overly cautious in not wishing to squander their man advantage, and so nearly ended up doing exactly that, is it their fault the World Cup has become the standard by which everyone involved in international rugby is now judged?
Now every so often France score a sublime try which, it is widely agreed by everybody, including themselves, could not have been scored by anyone else and leads to widespread rejoicing at another example of ‘French flair’.
A prime example would be the ‘try from the end of the world’, a brilliant handling move launched late on from inside their own 22 that enabled France to beat New Zealand in Auckland in 1994 — the All Blacks’ last loss at Eden Park.
Perhaps because the game was played at Twickenham, many English rugby fans become nostalgic at the mention of France’s stunning come from behind win against New Zealand in the 1999 World Cup semi-final.
It in no way diminishes France’s achievement that day to point out that of the four tries they scored in a thrilling 43-31 victory, three came from kicks and only one from a pass.
Brutal forward exchanges have long been as much a part of the French game as beguiling backline moves and ‘boring’ play is not exclusive to ‘Les Rosbifs’ on the other side of the channel.
For example, the 1963 French Championship final where Mont de Marsan beat Dax 9-6, in a match boasting backs of the calibre of the Boniface brothers, Christian Darrouy and Pierre Albaladejo, remains notorious as a dire game of rugby.
Some French players have done their best to live up to what the world expects them, none more so than Serge Blanco, a brilliant full-back whose speed across the turf seemed in no way impaired by a ‘diet’ of cigarettes and red wine.
In 1991 Blanco spoke about the “death of romanticism” and it may be that when pundits despair of the current France team they are in fact bemoaning rugby union’s switch from an amateur to a professional sport where winning, rather than the method of victory, has become paramount.
“Let’s face it, these days ‘Rugby a la Francaise’ is just a figment of the imagination and I can’t remember when I last saw it being played in France,” Lievremont said in an interview published in the match programme for the quarter-final against England.
“Because of the constraints of professional rugby…in our Top 14 the teams play a very physical, very strategic style of rugby which is very rarely spectacular,” the former France back-row added.
But not long after most of the spectators at Eden Park read those comments, France scored two fine tries through backs Vicent Clerc and Maxime Medard as they raced into a 16-0 half-time lead, having lost to ‘little’ Tonga the game before.
For there is another truism which some of France’s critics seem to be overlooking and that is no side can switch from the ridiculous to the sublime in the space of a week quite like ‘Les Bleus.’