France aim to go distance

‘Croydon-sur-Seine’, read the headlines.

It was a predictable response from a London media somewhat caught off guard by the news in 2008 that then French president Nicolas Sarkozy had asked a British architecture firm to examine how the Parisians suburbs might be remodelled on the South London borough.

It was ironic, then, that the week just passed should have been dominated as it was from a Gallic viewpoint by the alleged moanings about the team’s base in Croydon with sour sound-bytes emanating from one member of the squad and the media. Tighthead prop Uni Atonio unwittingly set the ball rolling with his gripe about a rowdy wedding in the team hotel — described by one French newspaper as “a little dated, kitsch but comfortable” — and the predictable effect it had on his beauty sleep.

The area itself the newspaper Metro described as “sad”.

“It is a big misunderstanding,” says the captain Thierry Dusatoir. “We never say anything about Croydon. I heard that an English newspaper said we were complaining about this area. No one did. It is a nice place, really comfortable. I don’t even know how it came to this way.”

France’s focus, he insists, is on the pitch.

Which is just as well because Philippe Saint-Andre’s squad decamped westwards midweek to a hotel on the edge of Slough, a place made infamous by poet John Betjeman and comic genius Ricky Gervais, as they count down to today’s clash with Italy in Twickenham.

Perched on the edged of the main road into town, and one that services Heathrow nearby, the new digs seem remarkably similar to the old ones, but with an added soundtrack of planes flying to and from one of the world’s busiest airports.

Those Irish players who spent so much of the 2007 World Cup marooned in a Bordeaux industrial estate would have a quiet chuckle at that. Italy, by way of contrast, are staying in the landscaped and cobblestoned delight that is Guildford.

For the French, it seems there is to be no escaping the less picturesque parts of Greater London and its surrounds on this trip, but the more salubrious surrounds of Twickenham have rarely offered Dusatoir much in the way of fond memories either. Though a squad member in 2007 when France won at Rugby HQ, the flanker didn’t play that day and he has yet to taste victory at England’s fortress. Playing Italy at the venue he admits will be “bizarre”, but it should also deliver an opening World Cup victory.

Accommodation aside, the omens have been largely promising of late with Saint-Andre already stating that his team is “much, much fitter” than it has been in recent Six Nations campaigns thanks to an uninterrupted training period that stretches back to July 6.

Their coach, at least, must feel at home. Saint-Andre was exposed to the British mentality via ten years divided between Gloucester and Sale Sharks, and the side he brings to this World Cup is one that leans on power rather than panache. And yet you still wouldn’t anchor an accumulator or a Yankee on them.

So, consistency? Who can say? “That is something which we don’t know with this French team,” says Dusatoir.

“Even me. I don’t know, but I am going to keep trusting my team and to stay focused on this game. I don’t want to see too far. I just want to be able to beat Italy. It will be a hard, Latin game.” That uncertainty manifests itself magnificently in the form of one man: Frederic Michalak. The last time the out-half crossed Irish radars was last April’s European Cup semi-final against Leinster when he was appalling and hauled off by Toulon coach Bernard Laporte.

Yet when he clicks he makes music.

“He brings a lot of experience,” says Dusatoir. “He played in South Africa and he really knows … he can manage the game and the team and he can be surprising too, so he is a typical French number ten. I know that he is going to play well in this competition.” The Italians rock up today on the back of a largely unimpressive lead-in, with a coach in Jacques Brunel who is watching the clock before his contract runs out and a captain in Sergio Parisse who sits out this opener with an injured foot. Dusatoir makes the right noises about how Italy are more than one man, but his goals stretch beyond today to October 31 and the final in Twickenham where he hopes the pain of that one-point decider defeat to New Zealand four years ago will finally be lanced. “From the day after the final it was important for me to come back to raise the trophy. Those four years were difficult for me because I got injured. Every time I came back and I am here today, so I am really proud of it. My purpose it to lift the trophy. This is my new journey.” Croydon and Slough? Mere pit stops on the way.

FRANCE:

S Spedding; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, A Dumoulin, N Nakaitaci; F Michalak, S Tillous-Borde; E Ben Arous, G Guirado, R Slimani; P Pape, Y Maestri; T Dusautoir (c), D Chouly, L Picamoles.

Replacements:

B Kayser, V Debaty, N Mas, B Le Roux, A Flanquart, M Parra, R Talès, G Fickou.

ITALY:

L McLean; L Sarto, M Campagnaro, A Masi, G Venditti; T Allan, E Gori; M Aguero, L Ghiraldini (c), M Castrogiovanni; Q Geldenhuys, J Furno; A Zanni, F Minto, S Vunisa.

Replacements:

A Manici, M Rizzo, L Cittadini, V Bernabo, S Favaro, G Palazzani, C Canna, E Bacchin.

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