After another week of turmoil off the field, France are desperate for a morale-boosting win against Tonga in Wellington on Saturday.
After another week of turmoil off the field, France are desperate for a morale-boosting result against Tonga in their final Pool A match in Wellington on Saturday.
On paper this French side, which is overflowing with class players, really should not be troubled by a Tongan team that frankly hasn't lived up to the exploits of four years ago. But considering events of the past fortnight, specifically a series of lapses in the French defence…anything is possible.
It's unfortunate that most of the headlines concerning Les Bleus have centred around happenings in press conferences rather than on the pitch as coach Marc LiÃ¨vremont's relationship with the press – and by extension, the French public – has hit rock-bottom. It seems LiÃ¨vremont bashing is the latest trend in the world media with the Kiwi and English press now also getting thoroughly stuck in. It's not difficult to see why.
Significantly, former captain Lionel Nallet was sent out midweek to squash suggestions of a player revolt. Nallet seemed convincing enough but where there is smoke, there's often fire. The public and media have lost patience with the coach's constant experiments – Sebastien Chabal said on Thursday that he no longer saw any logic in LiÃ¨vremont's line of thinking.
Most expected the 'Morgan Parra at 10' experiment to be short-lived (one well-known columnist in the New Zealand Herald insisted that the selections against New Zealand were proof that “France were trying to do was lose the match without being annihilated”). But LiÃ¨vremont has made a mockery of those claims by sticking to his guns and retaining his half-back combination in a team that is widely believed to be the closest thing we could get to first-choice XV, even though it is complete with a third different full-back in four games. Any hopes that this game would be used to allow Francois Trinh-Duc to get some confidence back have been left by the wayside.
The press aren't the only ones having a go at France's selections. Tonga captain Finau Maka – who knows the French better than most having spent nine seasons at Toulouse – had a proper dig at AurÃ©lien Rougerie, suggesting the Islanders would attack the Tricolor midfield.
“Maybe their centres are weak, just because I think Rougerie's not a centre, him and Maxime (Mermoz) haven't played together (much),” Maka said on Thursday.
“Maybe their front row (is weak as well), we can target their scrum.”
A handful of the Tongans are indeed familiar with French having played in the Top 14 but Maka is dreaming if he thinks the French scrum is a weakness, especially with the return of William Servat to the front row.
The French will expect to dominate in the set-pieces and will then hope to finally find some continuity amongst the backs. The chief criticism from pundits back in France (yes, even more so than the selections) has been France's lack of structure. The danger for Thierry Dusautoir's team is to be dragged into a scrappy affair that will play into the Islanders' hands.
Tongan coach Isitolo Maka has named a very similar side to that which faced the All Blacks in the tournament opener. They have always targeted this game and will hope to take something out of largely disappointing campaign. The Ikale Tahi started the competition with expectations of grabbing third place in the group and automatic qualification for the 2015 RWC, but a poor second half against Canada has left them behind the eight ball.
A massive upset win is now the only way to save their tournament. In front of a partisan crowd, given the large Tongan population in Wellington, Tonga will be fired up. Expect some almighty hits.
The net result of France's below-par performances so far has been a seed of self-doubt being planted in the core of the group
“Our performances haven't been exceptional so far,” said Dusautoir.
“All of this stems from a lack of confidence. It would be good to be totally free of this and to play all out.”
Saturday offers the perfect opportunity for France to do just that.
Players to watch:
For France: Wing Alexis Palisson makes his first appearance at the World Cup after having missed the opening games due to injury. Palisson is a real talent, a 'flair player' in the good ol' French tradition. There should be plenty of space for the French backs to exploit and this could be Palisson's one and only opportunity to force his way into the team to face England in a likely quarter-final.
For Tonga: Fly-half Kurt Morath will be tasked not only with making sure that the scoreboard keeps ticking from the kicking tee, but with organising the Tongan attack. Picked ahead of Taniela Moa, who is recognised as a better running 10, Morath will look to use his boot to make sure Tonga can attack from inside French territory.
Head-to-head: Japan and Canada couldn't match France at scrum time, but Tonga will hope to compete in the battle of the front rows. Northampton prop Soane Tonga'uiha is very strong man and Perpignan tighthead Kisi Pulu has said he will look to use his experience in the Top 14 and his knowledge of the French language to counter the opposition's tactics. France's starting hooker William Servat is considered a superior scrummager to Dimitri Szarzewski and is the anchor of one of the strongest scrums in the world game. If Les Bleus get on top up front, Tonga will struggle.
2005: France won 43 – 8 in Toulouse
1999: Tonga won 20-16 in Nuku A'lofa
1995: France won 38-10 in Pretoria
Prediction: Despite the supposed internal strife in the French camp, it's hard to see an upset here. France by 20 to 25 points.
France: 15 Maxime MÃ©dard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 AurÃ©lien Rougerie, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Morgan Parra, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Raphael Lakafia, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Pascal Pape, 3 Luc Ducalcon, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Imanol Harinordoquy, 20 Francois Trinh-Duc, 21 Fabrice Estebanez, 22 CÃ©dric Heymans.
Tonga: 15 Vungakoto Lilo, 14 Viliame Iongi, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Andrew Ma'ilei, 11 Sukanaivalu Hufanga, 10 Kurt Morath, 9 Taniela Moa, 8 Viliami Ma'afu, 7 Finau Maka (captain), 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Paino Hehea, 4 Tukulua Lokotui, 3 Kisi Pulu, 2 Aleki Lutui, 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Ephraim Taukafa, 17 Alisona Taumalolo, 18 Halani Aulika, 19 Joseph Tuineau, 20 Samiu Vahafolau, 21 Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Alipate Fatafehi
Date: Saturday, October 1
Kick-off: 18.00 ( 05.00 GMT)
Venue: Regional Stadium