France have devalued the most eagerly awaited World Cup game for four years and cocked a massive snook at the International Rugby Board.
French coach Marc Lievremont has chosen virtually a second string pack of forwards for the clash with New Zealand at Eden Park, Auckland on Saturday. It is a match that the rugby world has been waiting to see ever since the draw was made.
It was France who put New Zealand out of the 2007 Rugby World Cup by beating them in Cardiff. New Zealand fans have waited ever since for the chance for revenge but Saturday’s re-match has been made an irrelevance by the deliberate French selection.
Lievremont’s selection screams just one thing — ‘the last thing we want is to win this match and finish as group winners. We want to lose, finish runners-up and stay in what now looks destined to be exclusively the northern hemisphere side of the draw’.
The French have clearly calculated that they can beat the likes of Ireland or England and could now reach the World Cup final.
However, if they finished group winners they would almost certainly have to play either an improved South Africa or the Australians in the other semi-final.
The trouble is with this strategy, the IRB has sold 60,000 tickets for a match always seen as one of the highlights of the tournament. Now, it is completely devalued and likely to be dominated by the All Blacks.
The IRB has a problem here, for it may well set a precedent. For example, Ireland’s upset win over Australia may have been disastrous for the Wallabies but it was a nightmare for the South Africans.
They are now looking at a likely route to the final barred first by the Australians and then New Zealand.
However, if the Springboks managed to lose to Samoa in their final pool game, they would probably end up second in their pool on points and would go into the northern hemisphere dominated half of the draw. That would be a whole lot easier for them.
As things stand, the IRB would appear powerless to stop this kind of tactical manipulation. But it is making a joke of the World Cup and IRB officials should be mightily concerned.
France have made so many bizarre selections for this weekend that the conspiracy theory is the only logical explanation.
They never go into any major game without their greatest warrior forward, hooker William Servat. Yet he only makes the bench. Surely, he isn’t being held back for the clash with Tonga? Or do the French coaches believe the Tongans will pose a greater threat than the All Blacks?
The headline catching selection by France is choosing two scrum halves at half-back. Dimitri Yachvili was always destined to play, but the choice of their other No. 9 Morgan Parra at outside half, is crazy. There is some story about the coach being disappointed with the form of Francois Trinh-Duc. But you can bet the family silver on Trinh-Duc being back for the quarter final.
Parra has never started a single match for France at No. 10. So facing a nonentity of a side like New Zealand and a direct challenge from a bloke called Dan Carter who probably isn’t any good is obviously the perfect baptism.
Lievremont must have nearly split his sides laughing to himself when he explained the decision. “I thought about this long into the night, especially the decision about the half-backs, which wasn't an easy one,” he said.
This from a man who has hardly gambled with a team selection for four years.
Frankly, it is an insult to the 60,000 who bought tickets expecting to see a real contest and the strongest French team.
Elsewhere up front, Lievremont has left out his entire first choice front row, one lock and key back row man Imanol Harinordoquy, for years his go-to player in the back row.
There are new combinations throughout a hotch-potch side, something you simply would not consider if your goal was to beat New Zealand.
With biting irony, Lievremont (pictured) added “I expect to see the best of the All Blacks in this match.”
It’s a pity we won’t see the best of the French.