French belief rising just in time
France’s Vincent Clerc, the brilliant little wing from Toulouse, chewed the fat ahead of Sunday's World Cup final with New Zealand at Eden Park and mused, “Someone has to be favourites.”
As there was no conceivable need for him to add the phrase “and it's not us”, he saved his breath.
But there was, at long last, a hint of the French fires beginning to burn — a discernible increase in temperature around the team's city centre hotel — as Clerc and a couple of colleagues, Morgan Parra and Imanol Harinordoquy among them, discussed their chances of turning the tournament upside down.
“I don't feel as though I'm living in the skin of a loser, of someone who is not very good,” Clerc remarked.
“I really don't feel that at all. New Zealand have reasons to be confident — it is logical that people expect them to win this game. But maybe it's our turn to play our cards. We know we're capable of playing the match we need to play — it's never easy against the All Blacks, but we have the tools.
“This game is still in the future. New Zealand are not world champions yet.”
Along with Cory Jane (pictured), his opposite number this weekend, Clerc has been the competition's outstanding right wing.
He has scored half a dozen tries in as many contests — a tally matched only by Chris Ashton of England — and been heavily involved in most of the good things achieved by Les Bleus over the last seven weeks.
He was at the heart of the great controversy in the semi-final against Wales too, but it was hardly his fault that Sam Warburton overcooked a tackle and got himself sent off.
All tournament, he has been one of the Tricolors who at least looked like he believed, and his words yesterday reinforced that impression.
“Victories against the All Blacks are improbable,” he admitted. “We have to be completely realistic, completely lucid — we cannot miss a single opportunity.
“But we're not in this final by coincidence — we're here because we've done what needed to be done.
“Yes, when people say we are alone here in New Zealand, it is true. But we were alone when we beat the All Blacks in Cardiff in the last tournament and alone when we won in Dunedin in 2009.
“We are in our own bubble — we don't need to look outside or think about what anybody else is doing or saying.
“There have been difficult times in this tournament, but the French team is driven to difficulty.
“We like difficulty. It is our default position and it allows us to believe that the impossible is possible.
“This is a unique opportunity for us and I think we understand that we have no choice but to try to make history.
“This week cannot be compared with last week, before the semi-final. That was a very stressful time.
“Now, we are in a different dimension — we are in a very pleasant place.
“It will be hard for us, this game, but we can destabilise the All Blacks because we have the ability to do exceptional things,” he added.
The New Zealanders are well aware of the potential for a last-day upset, unlikely as it appears on the evidence of the rugby played in this tournament.
Certainly, the hosts are disconcerted whenever a discussion of Sunday's prospects takes on a tone of assumption and questions are asked about life after the final.
Steve Hansen, the assistant coach, is widely expected to succeed Graham Henry in the top job, but he was in no hurry yesterday to engage with the subject.
“Ask me on Monday, if I'm sober,” he said.
“Right now, I'm not interested in anything that might happen after Sunday.
“I just want to prepare our team to play really well against France, because that's what they'll have to do.
“Why? Because France will turn up. I'm sure of that,” he maintained.
“One of the amazing things about this All Black group is its ability to discuss things when the time is right to discuss them.
“Richie McCaw won his 100th cap during this tournament, Mils Muliaina did the same, this will be Wayne Smith's last game on the coaching staff.
“We haven't talked once about any of those things because we're focusing on something different.”