Bernard Laporte reckons the winner of Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final between France and Ireland will be outsiders to win the Webb Ellis Cup – but he does not believe there is much in it.
The eagerly-awaited clash of the Six Nations rivals should meet England for a place in the November 22 decider at Telstra Stadium.
Neither outfit has a particularly good recent record against Clive Woodward’s men, although France were the last team to defeat England in the warm-up international in August.
And Laporte insists their cross-channel foes remain the most likely northern hemisphere side to lift the coveted cup, with Australia and New Zealand providing the greatest threat.
“Without a doubt, those three are the best teams in the world,” he said. “Their results over the last few years indicate that.
“They have had fairly settled squads for quite a while now, so there is no mystery in the fact they should be favourites.
“But the gap between those three, ourselves, Ireland and South Africa is not a huge one and we will be trying desperately hard to bridge it over the next couple of weeks.”
After assessing the merits of four bonus-point victories in the pool stages, Laporte has opted to name the side which hammered Scotland 51-9 a fortnight ago for the Irish clash, although he has made a couple of notable changes to his replacements’ bench.
The introduction of South African-born centre Brian Liebenberg for Damien Traille among the back-up backs suggests the French will take a robust approach to taking on the Irish rearguard, while Patrick Tabacco’s appearance as back-row cover is designed to ensure enough line-out options in the area Laporte believes Eddie O’Sullivan’s side are at their strongest.
“We considered having five forwards among the replacements and only two backs,” admitted the wily France coach.
“We are aware of how good Ireland are in set-piece situations and we don’t want to leave ourselves in a situation where we don’t have enough cover.”
Les Blues are 80 minutes away from a third successive appearance in the last four, a feat only previously achieved by the mighty All Blacks.
And though they have triumphed in only one of their last four meetings with Ireland – the 2002 Grand Slam game – they will start Sunday’s encounter in Melbourne as slight favourites.
There are however concerns within the French camp about the standard of opposition they have faced so far.
Fiji, Japan, Scotland and the United States were all dismissed with relative comfort and they are acutely aware Ireland are coming into the game on the back of fiercely competitive contests with Argentina and Australia.
Team manager Joe Maso admitted the intensity levels will be raised markedly, as will the pressure on fly-half Freddie Michalak.
The 21-year-old Toulouse stand-off has ousted the vastly more experienced Gerard Merceron from the half-back slot alongside skipper Fabien Galthie but Maso admitted Michalak will need special attention in the build-up to Sunday’s game to ensure the occasion does not get the better of him.
“There is more pressure on Freddie, so we will try and take the attention away from him,” said Maso.
“We have a lot of leaders in our squad who will be taking the younger ones under their wing.
“Our backs coach Bernard Vivies will specifically spend time with Freddie and give him the advice and support he needs to get through such an important game.”