A tournament that has already captivated, thanks largely to Japan’s heroics, will hope to plug into the ultimate feelgood sporting event in modern English history when France and Romania meet in the Olympic Stadium’s first pool match this evening.
Too much can be made of venues at times and the urge to sigh is never far away when thoughts turn back to the opening of Croke Park to rugby and soccer when the Irish media pestered foreign visitors for their thoughts on the GAA’s stadium in Dublin 3.
Yet, there is no doubt but that players are genuinely excited about the chance to play in some of the world’s most iconic grounds over the course of this tournament’s six weeks with New Zealand players declaring themselves ‘stoked’ to have played in Wembley against Argentina last Sunday.
The All Blacks will get to add the Olympic Stadium to their bucket list tomorrow, but not before an experienced but limited Romanian team opens its Pool D account against a French side that will be their least experienced at a World Cup since 2003.
“It is good for us to discover the stadium,” said flanker Yannick Nyanga. “We imagine ourselves in the place of the athletes. Usain Bolt does great things every time he steps out. We think of Mo Farah, who won on home turf.
“We know the quality of the English and the organisation of this type of event. It’s a great experience to come here. We have never played here. We like the change. We know the story with the Olympic Games in 2012. A huge part of the team have been waiting for this game.”
So they have. Coach Phillipe Saint-Andre has made 13 changes to the side that started the opening win against Italy in Twickenham only four days ago with just number eight Louis Picamoles and wing Noa Nakaitaci taking the anthems again.
None other than French president Francois Hollande called to the team hotel in Croydon this week to wish them luck and, though Nyanga spoke deferentially of the exalted visitor, he concluded by reiterating the need for focus on the job at hand.
Romania face a thankless task in starting against France and facing Ireland four days later and their coach Lynn Howells put it in context by declaring this week that they effectively selected their squad of 31 from a pool of 34 players.
The Welshman is particularly light on backs though the battle up front, where Romania boast a front row that all plays its rugby in France, is likely to be the area where the underdogs give most difficulty before the game inevitably opens up and the scoreboard ticks over.
The expectation is that Saint-Andre will plump for most of those who started against Italy come the final pool game against Ireland in Cardiff — the injured Yoann Huget excepted, of course — though the coach declared an open mind on that earlier this week.
Saint-Andre has targeted a heightened discipline after their concession of 17 penalties against the Italians while Remi Tales and Morgan Parra will look to inject greater rhythm and consistency into the French attacking game than was evidenced in Twickenham.
The centre partnership of Wesley Fofana and Gael Fickou looks particularly exciting though assistant coach Patrice Lagisquet admitted that the former needs to ignore the optimism that his return from a thigh injury has generated.
“He needs to detach himself from the external concerns that everyone is expecting big things from him. He needs to step back sufficiently to not go looking for these big things. It is true, I find him a little too (susceptible) to the outside, the media.”
Nyanga would no doubt agree.
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