Could this be the charm of the XV of France? This chronic inconstancy, whimsical players, capable of the best as well as the worst, disappointing against opponents within their reach, dazzling when they have to move mountains against the greatest nations of world rugby. This tricolor genius, the English have given him a funny name: “French flair”, a subtle mixture of panache, recklessness in the effort and lightness in the passing game.
Saturday, October 8, 2011, it is to this touch of madness that the French supporters cling feverishly in this World Cup in New Zealand. Probably their only chance to hope to overcome the XV of the Rose and its conductor, Sir Jonny Wilkinson. Being still in the running for the quarter-finals is already a feat for Marc Lievremont’s men, who were beaten 14-19 by Tonga in the last pool match. Losing to these South Pacific islands is hardly conceivable. Never seen.
A collective surge
The day after this humiliation, the French coach shakes his troops with his usual outspokenness. “We are selfish on the pitch, we are selfish off it. What do we have instead of the heart, a cash drawer? », he says to his players, stunned by defeat. His deputy Didier Retière, more civilized, evokes “a rich group, but in need of certainties”. Admittedly, the Blues had a narrow escape. But this historic poor performance was to create the conditions for a collective leap forward. “This defeat was life-saving. So, of course, it was grimace soup, but we knew if Tonga had the bad idea to score an extra try, we’d all be home.”remembers the pillar of Biarritz Olympique, Fabien Barcella.
This extra soul, the players went to look for it in the intimacy of the hotel of the French team located in the north of Auckland (New Zealand). Their manager Jo Maso, a monument to international rugby in the 1970s, remembers the day when captain Thierry Dusautoir and three-quarter center Clermont Aurélien Rougerie came to see him with a request. “Jo, you have to leave us alone tonight, we need to get together as players. »“Banco guys, I’ll send you some beers. Above all, tell yourself everything that is on your heart. » At that moment, all the elegance and experience of Jo Maso are expressed.
Manager of the XV of France under three different coaches, from 1995 to 2011, he understood. Understand that the future of the players in this competition was no longer the responsibility of the coaches. That they needed a decompression valve after several clashes with their coach, who went so far as to call them “dirty kids” in front of the press. So the rascals let go for good. The dress code for this improvised evening: floral shirts, parachute boxers and tap shoes. Hooker Dimitri Szarzewski scratches some Gipsy Kings chords. Tongues loosen. “An improvised party on a Sunday, six days before a quarter-final against the English, you would think it was suicide, but it was the wake-up call we needed”is still having fun today the fellow Barcella.
Between Marc Lievremont and his players, a “I love you neither”
A casualness that brings Marc Lievremont out of his hinges at a press conference. One more time. “A year after the national psychodrama of Knysna, during the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, we were not prepared for the onslaught of journalists hungry for scoop. We had no communication service at the federation and Marc was systematically on the front line”, regrets Didier Retière. Scrum half Dimitri Yachvili, also from the Basque team, says it in his own way: “A World Cup is long: two months of competition plus two months of preparation, four months of life together, with testosterone, characters, egos to manage. »
“No one thought we had the legitimacy to be at this stage of the competition because we had qualified ric-rac against the Tongans”recognizes the sparkling playmaker of the tricolor formation. “But when you find yourself facing the English and you have French blood in your veins, the motivation is all there”, says Dimitri Yachvili, now a consultant for France Télévisions. Because the verdict of the meeting depends less on the technical skills of the players lined up on the match sheet than on their Gallic instincts. Marc Lievremont will summarize it as follows, a few minutes before kick-off: “We sacrifice for each other, we go beyond tactics, beyond suffering, beyond pain. And if there is a breach in them, it will be a chasm at the end of the game. »
8:30 p.m. Auckland time. The Marseillaise resounds in the mythical enclosure of Eden Park, which brings together nearly 50,000 spectators white-hot. The closed gaze of Thierry Dusautoir says a lot about the magnitude of the shock to come. With a rare intensity, the start of the match saw the featherweights of the blue army tackled dryly and thrown to the ground by the British opponent. Like the pocket winger Alexis Palisson, the little Blues take the blows but do not waver. “Even before the Crunch, during the training week, the guys had stored up in confidence. Strangely, dIn the staff, it felt like nothing could happen to them.”says Didier Retière, admiring the character shown by his players that day.
“Winning against the English, what a foot anyway! »
Carried by an unprecedented association between Dimitri Yachvili in the scrum and Morgan Parra in the opening, the French cavalry unfolds its game. . His friend Maxime Médard doubled the lead in the thirtieth minute of play, bringing the score to 16-0 at halftime. Even the great Jonny Wilkinson seems destabilized to the point of committing unusual slags at his level.
The three-quarter center Aurélien Rougerie tries to escape the English defense, during the quarter-final of the Rugby World Cup, October 8, 2011. / Nigel Marple / Reuters
The French supporters will not come out without a few cold sweats in the second half. The English reduce the score. 16 to 7 with twenty-five minutes remaining, the match has not yet delivered its verdict. Before the pyrotechnician François Trinh-Duc, relegated to the bench for the occasion, delivers the French supporters with the toe. 19 to 12, the Blues exult.
By creating the feat, the France team gives itself the right to dream of the supreme title. A premature elimination would have caused a lot of ink to flow in the world of the oval which would have chronicled “the worst World Cup in the history of the XV of France”. Even Marc Lievremont savors the moment in front of the journalists’ cameras: “Winning against the English, what a foot anyway! » The epic was to continue until the final with the hope of entering the legend of world rugby, but the All Blacks decided otherwise.
The eye of the technical staff: “In rugby, the game generates team spirit”
Jo Maso, manager of the XV of France during the 2011 World Cup
“During the week preceding the confrontation against the English, the slap inflicted by the Tongans made it possible to release the unspoken. As the players’ spokesperson to the staff members and vice versa, my priority was to maintain a positive spirit in the group. Keeping the flame burning is essential when players are going through a bad patch. A World Cup is not a championship. You have to know how to take match after match, play your way. In the home stretch, no nation in world rugby is unbeatable. In addition, we had heard that, on the English side, there was water in the gas.
The guys who were on the score sheet in the quarter-finals were keen to prove that they didn’t owe their qualification to a misunderstanding. Those who were not lucky enough to be in the starting XV had given them the shirts in the locker room. I remember having shivers when I saw Guilhem Guirado spinning his bib to William Servat, our hooker. From there, from number 1 to number 15, they knew how to ignite the match, reconnect with the playful dimension of our sport. In rugby, it is the game that generates team spirit. These boys had character. The rest will show it: they came within a whisker of a historic performance against the New Zealanders in the final. This title of world champion is the greatest regret of my life. I hope that the Blues of Antoine Dupont will go to the end of the dream next October. »