Out of a job regardless of what happens here on Sunday, French coach Marc Lievremont has somehow dragged his beleaguered and bickering squad all the way to a World Cup final. In the opposite corner is a man who has dedicated and invested the last eight years of his life to bringing the Webb Ellis trophy back to New Zealand.
Four years ago Graham Henry’s life fell apart when the French ambushed his All Black side with a performance characterised by passion, commitment, flair and no shortage of skill at the quarter-final stage in Cardiff.
It is not exaggerating the point to say that France have gone nowhere near replicating that type of performance in the intervening period.
Indeed, they have gone backwards at a rate of knots, starting with their very next performance when they failed miserably against a very poor English side in their own back yard at the Stade de France in the 2007 World Cup semi final.
So for the second tournament in a row an undeserving side makes the final. Without being too one-eyed, Wales or Ireland are more worthy of a final appearance on the basis of what they brought to the table over the last few weeks.
Controversy has followed this French squad throughout the World Cup with Lievremont constantly berating his squad in public. That has been a feature of his management style since the shock loss to Italy in the Six Nations last March. There he publicly declared that his players were a shower of cowards.
Having reached crisis point with that ignominious loss to Tonga a few weeks ago, his first utterances to the media on the morning after that extraordinary semi final win over Wales on Saturday night offered more of the same.
Apparently some of the French squad decided to go out and have a few beers after the pressure of the semi final against the coaches’ wishes. His response, delivered in public, was: “I told them what I thought of them. They are a bunch of undisciplined, spoilt brats, disobedient, sometimes selfish, always complaining, always whining and they’ve been frustrating me for four years.”
Marc, you need to get off the fence and tell us what you really think of your players...
As always after one of his rants, Lievremont sought to backtrack only hours after his early morning comments.
“The night out is incidental, it’s not that important.”
One of the difficulties with playing a match at 9pm at night is that it is very difficult to unwind. There is no way, for example, that you could go to bed at 1am as you are still too hyped up after the demands of such a big game. It is not unreasonable to let players out for a period to relax. The Irish players did it after their big games in the tournament without any adverse effect. It’s all about being sensible and trusting the players.
It seems to have gone beyond that, however, in the French set up and in those circumstances how they have made it all the way to the final is incredible.
In the other camp, Henry has survived massive public scrutiny to put his team within 80 minutes of a triumph the squad and country crave so badly.
The pressure on him was multiplied by the fact that two of the potential challengers in the last four were also coached by New Zealanders. The country was split when Henry was re-appointed — with the support of all the players it should be noted — with many feeling the job should have gone to the decorated Crusaders coach Robbie Deans. To add insult to injury, Deans was snapped up by the Australian rugby union to lead their revival which he has done by blooding and persevering with a young and talented team.
He had to endure some difficult times while introducing a bunch of teenagers to the reality of international rugby but the investment in raw talent such as David Pocock, James O’Connor, Digby Ioane, Will Genia, Quade Cooper — most of the time — and Kurtley Beale has paid rich dividends. Had Deans orchestrated a Wallaby victory on Sunday night, Graham Henry would have been slaughtered. When he delivered a Tri Nations success for Australia in August the mob were circling. However, history has repeated itself once again and remarkably the reigning Tri Nations champions have never gone on to win the World Cup.
The fact that Warren Gatland has done so well with Wales and impressed so many people over here with the way they’ve played has also put the heat on Henry. Gatland has always been a favourite of the Waikato region and enjoys a lot of public support around the Auckland area.
Those sympathies were stoked even further by the manner in which they lost on Saturday. Henry will be pleased and somewhat relieved to be able to go into this weekend’s final without the presence of another New Zealand coach casting shadows over him. Either way he will be fully focused for what will be his last ever game in charge of the All Blacks.
I am nailing my colours firmly to the New Zealand mast for this one not least because of all that Henry has given to their cause. At one stage last week I felt I may have divided loyalties for the finalists given that I had worked very closely on the international stage with both Henry and Gatland. I was sure that Wales would beat France and still believe they would have had Sam Warburton not got himself sent off.
A few days before Christmas in 2003 I received a phone call from a lovely lady from the New Zealand rugby union enquiring whether or not I was prepared to take a phone call from the union’s CEO Steve Tew. Apparently Graham Henry had nominated me as a reference on his CV when applying for the job as head coach of the All Blacks. Given that it was 1am New Zealand time when she rang, I commented how late she was working with the festive holidays approaching. She commented that all the New Zealand people wanted for Christmas was a decent coach and she was doing her best to deliver.
Two days later I had a 50 minute griller from Tew as to why Henry should get the job with an in-depth analysis on all the positives and negatives surrounding the 2001 Lions tour when we worked together.
I stuck by my man and thankfully he got the job.
Next Sunday represents the culmination of all that he has worked so hard for and I have to admit a part of me will be in that coaches box with him.
New Zealand — the best side in the world for so long without proving it in the only six weeks that matter every four years, are finally on the cusp of achieving greatness.
For all kinds of reasons this time out, I hope they make it.