France had become the laughing stock of RWC 2011, but a rejuvenated side put on an inspired display of rugby to beat England 19-12 at Auckland’s Eden Park in the second quarterfinal on Saturday. By STYLI CHARAMLAMBOUS.
When the Tricolours line up it’s never quite clear which French team will arrive for the match. Often labelled “enigmatic”, the consistently inconsistent French have been known to offer up such abysmal performances many fans contemplate the involvement of Indian bookmakers with their coaching staff.
After soaking up the first five minutes of English pressure, it soon became clear that it would be the 17-time winners of the Six Nations that arrived in Eden Park to take on their familiar foes in the shape of England. Many expected a capitulating performance from a team whose week had been mired in the controversy - team infighting and public criticism of their coach. It would seem the only thing these French players dislike more than their coach is losing to an English team.
French pressure resulted in points, as scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili landed his first penalty from 45m out in the 11th minute and followed it up with another only four minutes later to lead 6-0 after 15mins. English fans’ nightmares were coming true as winger Vincent Clerc tap-danced his way through the English backline after a wrap-around midfield move, which left defenders scratching their heads. Yachvili missed the conversion and another two penalties, as France led 11-0 after 22mins.
Photo: France's Vincent Clerc (R) tackles England's Mark Cueto during their Rugby World Cup quarter-final match at Eden Park in Auckland October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel
An enterprising attack on the English line, saw captain Thierry Dusautoir get within centimetres of the line, before the French backline moved the ball through the line for fullback Maxime Medard to cross for their second try, which Yachvili failed to convert. The scoreline would remain 16-0 until halftime, as England came close to getting on the board with some attacking play just before the whistle.
Trailing by 16 points, England opted for attacking lineouts that they tried to drive off, but instead looked as though they remained stuck in neutral gear. Coach Martin Johnson looked to the substitutions bench for inspiration and fresh legs as France started waning in the second half with some very complacent rugby creeping into their game.
England were rewarded in the 55th min, when fullback Ben Fodden exploited a gap in the French backline, after good work by Toby Flood and Jonny Wilkinson to score under the poles. Wilkinson duly converted to keep the English in the game at 16-7 down, and with 25mins to go.
Where the first half saw England giving away penalties like free skin-care samples, the French returned the gesture by conceding eight consecutive penalties in the second half, as the game began to tighten up with a semi-final place to play for.
In the 60th min, England subbed 2003 hero Jonny Wilkinson, whose tournament could at best be described as average, in an effort to ignite the backline with more pace and creativity.
For France, eighthman Imanol Harinordoquy was massive, defending as if his life depended on it and carrying the ball well in the tackle area, and was duly awarded the Man-of-the-Match accolade. The English scrum looked frail under the pressure from the French front-row with Matt Stevens guilty of conceding several penalties before being pointed to the side of the field for an early shower. Neither side would be happy with their line-out performances, each turning over possession several times from this set piece.
With 10 minutes to go, France advanced on the English channel, where they camped out long enough for substitute Trinh-Huc to land the drop goal and put the French 19-7 ahead and ultimately into another semi-final. A late try by substitute winger Mark Cueto breathed life into the match with just 5mins to go and England closing the gap to 19-13 after Flood pushed the conversion wide.
When Michael Parra hit the uprights with a penalty kick in the final minute, the French team and fans jumped to their feet as the ball bounced out and with it, England’s crusade. In truth, England have been average, albeit recording a clean sweep of a rather mediocre Pool B and neutral fans will be happier to see the French through to the next stage.
France will hope to repeat their Auckland performance in their semi-final against Wales next week. On the back of Saturday’s performances, Wales will start as favourites in that match in Auckland, but in the knockout stages against a French team that continues to bewilder with rollercoaster rugby, who’d be brave enough to bet against another upset? DM
Pen: Yachvili (2)
Try: Clerc, Medard
Drop goal: Trinh-Duc
Try: Foden, Cueto
England: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Toby Flood, 11 Mark Cueto, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Lewis Moody, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Tom Palmer, 4 Louis Deacon, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Steve Thompson, 1 Matt Stevens.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Alex Corbisiero, 18 Courtney Lawes, 19 Simon Shaw, 20 James Haskell, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Matt Banahan.
France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Morgan Parra, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Pascal Pape, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Louis Picamoles, 20 Francois Trinh-Duc, 21 David Marty, 22 Cédric Heymans.
Referee: Steve Walsh
Main photo: France's Vincent Clerc celebrates with teammate Alexis Palisson (R) after scoring a try during their Rugby World Cup quarter-final match against England at Eden Park in Auckland October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth