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 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