By Padraic Halpin
TOKYO (Reuters) – With a tough draw and consistently patchy form, three-times runnersup France face the very real prospect of an early exit when they kick off their World Cup against Argentina in a potentially must-win game on Saturday.
In the only pool containing three teams that have made the semi-finals, the loser of the blockbuster will more than likely have to beat highly rated England to drag themselves back into contention for the knockout stages.
Predictions that such a fate awaits a French team that have been frustratingly inconsistent, even by their usual mercurial standards, is providing fuel for Jacques Brunel’s young side.
“Nobody believes in us, that’s what I think and we’re going to try to prove them wrong,” Damian Penaud, one of three backs aged 22 or under in the side, told a news conference on Thursday.
“Personally I don’t care about what is said in France but yeah, it motivates me. We want to show everybody that we are here for a reason. It is important to start this competition on the right foot and go as far as we can.”
While both sides have reached the last four in two of the last three World Cups, they come to Japan very much as works in progress.
Having parachuted Brunel’s named successor Fabien Galthie onto the coaching ticket and placed their trust in the young Toulouse halfback partnership of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, France appear to have half an eye on 2023 when they host the World Cup.
It would all point to Argentina smelling blood from the Six Nations also-rans were it not for the Pumas’ own struggles.
Mario Ledesma’s men arrived in Tokyo a lowly 11th in world rankings following nine consecutive test defeats, albeit mostly against the three giants of the Rugby Championship, and they did beat Australia and South Africa just before that run.
They have demonstrated an edge over France, however, having won 10 of their 16 meetings since the turn of the century and will have French club rugby veteran Nicolas Sanchez pulling the strings at flyhalf.
Saturday’s clash will be pivotal, no matter how much the participants protest.
“It will be important but not decisive,” Brunel said, appearing to reference how another Pool C opponent, Tonga, upset the French in the latter pool stages eight years ago.
“Ideally we want to win, of course whoever wins will have a great advantage. But the history of the World Cup has shown us that we shouldn’t forget the other games.”
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Ian Ransom)