Schizophrenic French a dangerous foe

THE bigger the game, the smaller the margins and the fewer the chances: never was that more obvious that in Saturday’s Wales-France semi-final.

Wales were the form team left in the competition, able to play the complete game due to a combination of talent and good coaching strategies.

On the other hand, France had made it through to the final four without ever working as an attacking force and in the weekend’s semi-final showdown adopted the cup rugby formula of playing not to lose. The result was less than pretty rugby and as a spectacle it lacked entertainment value for any neutrals watching, but from a French point of view it was highly effective.

The early sending-off of Wales’ captain Sam Warburton definitely aided the French cause but the Welsh froze when the chances came and got sucked into a tit-for-tat kicking game with their opponents. In the biggest game for Wales in this Rugby World Cup they got their tactics wrong.

The loss of Warburton gave France an advantage in two areas, the set pieces – lineouts and scrums – and in the ability to turnover opposition ball at the breakdown. As the game progressed, the seven-man Welsh scrum improved, and while possession and position still favoured the Welsh they too quickly lost patience in their phase play and went for the kick. This gifted the ball to outhalf Morgan Parra and fullback Maxime Medard, in particular. Knowing France had the upper hand in the lineouts they were content to look for the touchline and force Wales to start all over again from deep in their own half.

For large periods of play the Welsh neglected to use centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies as ball carriers and continued to try and outflank the superior numbers of the French defensive line. Only Mike Philips at scrum-half tried to keep the defence honest and he was rewarded with scoring the only try of the match.

It was only in the final moments of the game that Wales held the ball and went through the phases, but it was too little too late. At this stage the French were never going to make a mistake or cough up a soft penalty.

Post-match all the talk has revolved around referee Alain Rolland’s decision to red card Warburton in the 18th minute. But even with 14 men, the game was still there for the taking as far as Wales was concerned. What really cost Wales the win was poor tactics and missing three penalty kicks and one conversion attempt.

The second semi-final also yielded just one try but the intensity and commitment from both the All Blacks and Australia put the match on a different plane from Saturday night’s match.

Again, a dominant tactic seemed to be putting the ball in the air and waiting for mistakes to occur. Unfortunately for the Wallabies the New Zealand back three of Israel Dagg, Cory Jane and Richard Kahui were all outstanding under the high ball and they generally made the Australians pay.

With the departure from the tournament of Dan Carter followed by injury to his back-up Colin Slade, the All Blacks had a potentially serious problem by being forced to start third-choice outhalf Aaron Cruden in the crucial semi-final. Providing front foot ball and taking away the ability of the opposition to pressure him was the only viable option and in that regard the New Zealand pack was outstanding.

AGAINST Australia the contact area was always going to be a battle between the rival war-horses Richie McCaw and David Pocock. McCaw was back to his best but the commitment at the breakdown shown by all the All Black eight battle was what gave New Zealand the winning edge. They spent the whole match getting to the ball in numbers and driving through on their feet, allowing halfback (Mr Fixit) Piri Weepu and later his replacement Andy Ellis to move the ball away with the defence still in retreat.

Cruden’s night was made as easy as it could be with the weight of 4.2 million people resting on his youthful shoulders, and during the 80 minutes he grew into a player New Zealand now know they can rely on. The poise shown when he successfully dropped a goal and the sureness of his defence will convince himself and the New Zealand public that he is the right man to steer the All Blacks through the final next weekend.

Conversely, Wallabies outhalf Quade Cooper had a horror start and few things went right for him, or for his team. The loss of Kurtley Beale was significant. His attacking genius and ability to create something from nothing may have given the Wallabies hope despite their lack of quality possession. Instead his presence was sorely missed.

It is amazing that 24 years ago in New Zealand and in the inaugural Rugby World Cup, the final was played between the All Blacks and France. Third and fourth places were battled out between Wales and Australia. Six world cups later and back on New Zealand soil we’re about to see an action replay.

Friday’s third-place play-off between Australia and Wales is the game no side wants to play and it will be a real test of character of both the squads to see if they can get themselves up and bring their A game to Eden Park.

Australia and Wales love to move the ball and hopefully both teams will reveal their full talents as they contest the minor placings.

Having beaten France early in the pool stages, New Zealand must feel confident going into Sunday’s final. But France is a team like no other in this tournament. They have somehow made it into the final without ever playing to their potential and New Zealanders are fearful that somewhere in this schizophrenic Les Bleus outfit there is a complete performance waiting to happen.

Having both played and coached in France I know the French are at their most dangerous when they either think they can win easily or when they don’t really rate their chances.

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