Les Bleus ban­ish mem­o­ries of Croy­don with dis­play of beauty

Af­ter all the furore over their less-than-chic base, French show they can be true con­tenders for glory

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport Rugby World Cup 2015 - Oliver Brown at Twick­en­ham

The words ‘French’ and ‘mer­cu­rial’ tend to go to­gether like cham­pagne and a slug of crème de cas­sis

Some­how, this ex­otic Franco-Ital­ian cock­tail was the per­fect amuse­bouche for a Rugby World Cup des­per­ate to de­liver an in­tox­i­cat­ing feast. On a Satur­day night of Mediter­ranean balmi­ness, the streets of Twick­en­ham re­ceived a re­fresh­ingly Latin facelift, as even a hand­ful of English neu­trals had their faces painted in the shades of Le

Tri­color. Twick­en­ham was lit up like a Christ­mas tree, the mu­sic was di­alled up to Su­per Bowl vol­ume, and Martin Castrogiovanni re­sem­bled a caged cir­cus beast as he fired up his

con­siglieri in blue. For the French, it was a re­lief sim­ply to es­cape Croy­don for a day. All week they had given been ful­mi­nat­ing about their pas très chic sur­rounds in south Lon­don’s most maligned sub­urb, fed up of hear­ing sug­ges­tions for a de­cent ke­bab or be­ing told that the visi­tor cen­tre at Croy­don air­port was re­ally rather fas­ci­nat­ing. That or­deal ended with the first strains of La Mar­seil­laise, sung by the Gal­lic half of this crowd with the same élan that one would ex­pect of a Bastille Day cel­e­bra­tion on the Champs-Élysées.

If France’s play­ers had ticked off one as­pect of na­tional car­i­ca­ture by crit­i­cis­ing the in­el­e­gance of their digs, they at least acted against type by de­liv­er­ing this un­usu­ally stress-free vic­tory.

At a World Cup, the words ‘French’ and ‘mer­cu­rial’ tend to go to­gether like cham­pagne and a slug of crème de cas­sis, but on this oc­ca­sion the team of­fered a study in dis­ci­pline. Six penal­ties to the good, they fi­nally con­trived one mo­ment of daz­zling bril­liance in the form of Noa Nakaitaci’s scyth­ing run to set up Rabah Sli­mani’s try. Such was the roar of re­lief, one could be for­given for think­ing this was Saint-De­nis.

To give France their usual la­bel of ‘con­tenders’ at the tour­na­ment would do a dis­ser­vice to their vast col­lec­tive tal­ents. On this ev­i­dence, it would be no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to tout them as sec­ond favourites be­hind New Zealand.

Their back line, even when shorn of Wes­ley Fo­fana, can be ex­hil­a­rat­ing, and Thierry Dusautoir of­fers plenty of the re­minders of the man who was named world player of the year in 2011, for lead­ing his side’s won­der­ful run to the fi­nal in Auck­land.

True, there are a few oblig­a­tory mav­er­icks among their num­ber. Fly­half Frédéric Micha­lak, for ex­am­ple, has ac­quired a rep­u­ta­tion as the Ser­gio Gar­cía of rugby, in hon­our of his habit of never quite de­liv­er­ing on his abun­dant tal­ents.

It was an im­pres­sion he did lit­tle to dis­pel when two of his penal­ties struck the post within the first 15 min­utes. Even the most loyal sup­port­ers of Philippe Saint-An­dré would con­cede that the head coach has gam­bled by se­lect­ing Micha­lak at all. Was this not the same per­son who missed four of five penal­ties against Eng­land in the semi-fi­nals in 2003?

Micha­lak would counter that he has changed, that he has evolved from the play­boy who once seemed to de­rive less plea­sure from his rugby than he did pos­ing nude for lux­ury fash­ion mag­a­zines, that he is now a set­tled fam­ily man. He was de­pend­able enough here, as his penal­ties helped take France out of sight, even if the longer-range kicks had to be del­e­gated to full-back Scott Sped­ding. He needs only three more points to equal Thierry Lacroix’s World Cup record of 124. While Micha­lak’s con­tin­ued role might not be a promis­ing state­ment about France’s half-back op­tions, his per­for­mance did enough to ap­pease the wolves at Saint-An­dré’s door.

The coach does not have the lux­ury of his pa­tience in his home­land, given how the un­ex­pected joys of their last World Cup have been fol­lowed by four years of wretched Six Na­tions un­der­achieve­ment. But the signs of a turn­around, hinted at by their dis­man­tling of Eng­land in Paris this sum­mer, are in­creas­ing. They had far too much fire­power for Italy, who again demon­strated that their rise has stalled un­der the stew­ard­ship of Jac­ques Brunel. It was strange last night to re­mem­ber how they had turned France over in Rome in 2013, when they re­sem­bled such fee­ble al­so­rans here.

Granted, they have suf­fered griev­ously from the loss of their tal­is­man Ser­gio Parisse, who has needed to have a blood clot drained from his leg.

But the ab­sence of a player with even half their cap­tain’s skill or in­flu­ence is star­tling. Castrogiovanni, in par­tic­u­lar, gave a con­vinc­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of macho pos­tur­ing, start­ing this game as if wanted to rip ev­ery French­man limb from limb and eat the prof­its from lunch. As it turned out, he was as in­ef­fec­tual as any of his team-mates, find­ing him­self re­placed early in the sec­ond half.

France sub­dued any threat serenely, of­fer­ing ev­ery in­di­ca­tion that their stay by the M25 could last the full six weeks. Their play, un­like the set­ting of the team ho­tel, was any­thing but drab. Per­haps they should come to Croy­don more of­ten.

Back on track: Fred­eric Micha­lak even­tu­ally found his kick­ing boots af­ter an early wob­ble

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