Having the last laugh
October 19, 2011
Can Lievremont's side upset the odds against the All Blacks in Sunday's tournament finale? © Getty Images
France coach Marc Lievremont has been subject to a fair amount of ridicule during his side's rollercoaster ride of a Rugby World Cup campaign but could he have the last laugh against New Zealand in the tournament finale?
Such a scenario may seem unlikely to those who witnessed France's shock loss to Tonga earlier this month, that followed a crushing defeat to the All Blacks, or their far from impressive semi-final victory over a 14-man Wales last weekend, but Lievremont does not appear to be troubled as he prepares for what will also be his last game in charge of Les Bleus. Lievremont was as cool as his matinee idol looks would suggest as he fronted up to the media on Wednesday ahead of their showdown with the All Blacks - it was as if he hadn't a care in the world - but we know better.
A surprise choice to take over from former coach Bernard Laporte, Lievremont has provided colour and confusion in equal measure during his four-years in charge of France and has rivalled soon-not-to-be South Africa boss Peter de Villiers as the coach most likely to generate more headlines than his side. But like his Springboks counterpart, Lievremont can claim that there is method in his supposed madness as success has not been a total stranger.
Under his tutelage, France claimed a famous victory over the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2009 and followed that with another notable success against a Springboks side that had recently added the British & Irish Lions' scalp to their World Cup crown. Further acclaim would follow in 2010 as his side swept to a Six Nations Grand Slam. But his 44-Test tenure, that has brought 27 victories, has also included notable losses with a 59-16 mauling at the hands of Australia last year and a shock defeat to Italy in this year's Six Nations. The lack of consistency in terms of results has not been helped by a selection policy that has drawn widespread criticism and bewilderment while Lievremont's tactical approach has also been a near-constant the subject of debate.
That stunning reverse in Rome a few short months ago prompted Lievremont's startling claim that some of his players were, "lacking in courage" and "cursed with what is obviously cowardice." He later apologised for his comments but his remorse only managed to paper over the cracks within his squad that were blown apart in the wake of his side's Pool stage defeat to Tonga. The players rebuffed his offer of "a few beers" and the chance to chat through their issues and an aggrieved Lievremont went on the offensive.
That criticism stung the players who were angered by their coach's decision to share such information with a media that many were convinced was already all too happy to right them off. They staggered into the quarter-finals but the results kept coming firstly against England, when they showed glimpses of the free-flowing game that will be required if they are to stand any chance of derailing the All Blacks on Sunday night, before Wales were edged out in less spectacular fashion.
But this success, that has lifted them to third place in the latest IRB Rankings, has not nurtured harmony. The players once again showed their lack of respect for the coach by ignoring his request to not go out and celebrate their semi-final triumph and Lievremont was happy to vent once again in full glare of the media. "I told them they are a bunch of spoiled brats," he said. "Undisciplined, disobedient, sometimes selfish. Always complaining. And it's been like this for four years."
Sometimes you wonder if Lievremont's sentiments have been lost of distorted in translation but so clear was his venom on this occasion, and the subsequent dismay from the players, there could be no doubt of his anger. "If a player has a bad game, Marc will not hesitate to criticise and that perhaps does not always make him popular," explained team manager Jo Maso, a veteran of four World Cup campaigns. "It may look like confrontation but it is not really. It is just honesty."
Unsurprisingly, the team's woes have drawn comparisons with the French soccer side's amazing implosion at last year's FIFA World Cup where coach Raymond Domenech suffered at the hands of a player rebellion. Lievremont has respect for Domenech but unlike his football counterpart whose side were sent packing on their quest for world domination, France remain on course for the unlikeliest of victories with a third World Cup Final appearance awaiting them this weekend.
Maso also suggested a more surprising reason for the friction within the camp, adding, "He also has a sense of humour that they do not understand," he explained. That comedic element sometimes surfaces in front of the media. Asked whether he his side can beat the All Blacks playing the same way as they did against Wales, he raised a smile before answering, "No, I do not think so."
With arguably the biggest game in the history of French rugby rapidly approaching, Lievremont has clearly been building bridges with his players. "I think I said those things to put pressure on them and when I read my words in the written press, I guess I could have stayed quiet," he said of his latest outburst. "What we need to do now is focus on our solidarity." That may be a big ask for a side that has put up anything but a united front in recent weeks - but funnier things have happened.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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