October 7, 2011
Marc Lievremont is feeling the strain of trying to keep France's Rugby World Cup campaign from going off the rails © Getty Images
Delon Armitage Chris Ashton Mark Cueto Imanol Harinordoquy Dylan Hartley Marc Lievremont Nicolas Mas Morgan Parra Mike Tindall Dimitri Yachvili
Many neutrals are split over this weekend's Rugby World Cup quarter final clash between England and France - and it's not really over who they would like to win, but rather a case of who they want to lose more.
Indeed, it would be something of an understatement to say that neither England nor France have exactly endeared themselves to the purists or the locals since arriving in New Zealand last month. And that has as much to do with their respective performances off the field as much as on it.
England, to their credit, have progressed to the quarter-finals on the back of four successive victories. However, they have done in thoroughly underwhelming fashion, playing an uninspiring brand of rugby which has only just been good enough to see them edge past Argentina and Scotland after being outplayed for three quarters of both games.
But if England's play has been rugby, their behaviour has been even worse. When the Mike Tindall scandal first broke many felt a degree of sympathy for a player who it seemed had simply want to let off some steam with a night on the town with some team-mates. However, it has now emerged that the centre lied to Martin Johnson and his coaching staff about his exact movements on the night in question.
At the same time, it was also revealed that Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley and James Haskell had reduced a female member of staff at the team's hotel to tears with lewd comments. The impression has now been created that a number of England's players have little respect for the general public, the jersey, the tournament or their coach.
Still, Johnson's player problems pale in comparison to that of French counterpart Marc Lievremont, who, it seems clear, has 'lost the dressing room'.
Rumours were rife even before the tournament began that the players had turned against their coach, who, during a four-year tenure which will end upon completion of the World Cup, has become infamous for his ridiculously inconsistent selection policy.
However, his biggest faux pas was publicly accusing some of his troops of cowardice after their Six Nations defeat by Italy this year. That did not sit well with his players and nor indeed did the criticism which followed both their opening-weekend win over Japan and last Sunday's utterly shocking defeat by Tonga.
Indeed, France's performance against the Tongans was undoubtedly the nadir of Lievremont's ill-fated reign. According to him, they even refused a beer with him after the game. Even England's players would not have stooped so low!
England - Player to Watch: Toby Flood's presence in midfield should open up a number of new attacking options for England. Flood's superior distribution skills should enable England to bring their dangerous back three into the game, and his ability to offload on the gainline should create opportunities for the rampaging Manu Tuilagi through the centre. He will also bring an accomplished kicking game to midfield.
England - Team News: Flood starts at inside centre alongside fly-half Jonny Wilkinson for only the second time under Martin Johnson, with Mike Tindall missing out with a dead leg. Tom Palmer takes over from Courtney Lawes in the second-row and Nick Easter is preferred to James Haskell at No.8. Lawes and Haskell take their places on the bench. Mark Cueto, who was dropped for the Scotland game after scoring a hat-trick against Romania, returns on the wing after Delon Armitage was suspended. Richard Wigglesworth and Matt Banahan cover the backs from the bench.
France - Player to Watch: France may be faltering but Vincent Clerc's potency on the right wing remains unaffected, as evidenced by his record of five tries from four starts to date. The Toulouse speedster is arguably the most lethal finisher in world rugby and Mark Cueto can ill afford to switch off even for a split second on Saturday. If he does, Clerc will be celebrating a 31st try in Test rugby before the Sale man even has time to turn.
France - Team News: France make just two changes to the side which performed so dismally against Tonga, with prop Nicolas Mas returning after three games out with a hamstring injury to take over at tight-head from Luc Ducalcon, and Imanol Harinordoquy earning a recall at No. 8 at the expense of Raphael Lakafia.
Key Battle: While England have two natural fly-halves in their starting XV, France continue with two natural scrum-halves. Morgan Parra again starts at No.10 for France and England will look to openside flanker Lewis Moody to put the novice fly-half under huge pressure; pushing him deep and forcing him into mistakes.
Stats: France's defeat by Tonga has seen them slip to eighth in the IRB rankings, thus equalling their lowest ever standing in world rugby.
Trivia: England reached the last two World Cup finals having beaten France along the way
"From my knowledge of French guys and what their psyches' like, it tends to be that if things don't go their way or things aren't going too well they do make quite a lot out of it. It happens to the French. Look at their football team in the World Cup as well."
"I do not think there are internal problems, just a frustration on my part but also the players. And also of shame after the match last Saturday. All this will, hopefully, generate a reaction."
Prediction: France remain a threat for the simple fact that they are France, and therefore capable of following up the absurd with the sublime. However, given the obvious tensions between the coach and his players, it is just impossible to see them upsetting an England side which has mastered the art of getting the job done.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
"The loudest cheer at a rugby game, away from social media gimmicks, pumping music and pyrotechnics will always be for a try." Tom Hamilton on the Twickenham atmosphere
"The only thing that will stop this England team from becoming a great team is themselves. They need to ask themselves 'what can we be?'" The Phil Vickery column
The latest Monday Maul looks at the hectic final weekend, the Lions hangover, the superb Mike Brown and the 'selfie'
"At the crux of this England team is a lack of fear, they are not afraid to throw playbooks out of the window." Tom Hamilton reports from Twickenham