For the majority of Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final with Wales, France were in control thanks to a performance that belied the reports of discord in the camp.
Arguably the most unpredictable side in world rugby, Les Bleus showed the best side of themselves for so long in a contest few expected them to have the better of, against a Wales team briefly ranked number one in the world this year.
France were aggressive, fluent with ball in hand and produced the kind of aesthetically pleasing play that is synonymous with their country’s finest in full flight.
As Virimi Vakatawa stepped past Josh Navidi and found Romain Ntamack, who then fed Antoine Dupont to set up Charles Ollivon to cruise under the posts and put France 12-0 up, even the most ardent of Wales fan will have feared a vintage display from the side that controversially denied them in the semi-finals in 2011.
Even after an error allowed Adam Wainwright to get Wales on the board, France remained the superior outfit and, despite a pair of missed kicks from Ntamack, it would have been tough to find too many tipping Warren Gatland’s men to make a comeback akin to the one they produced at the Stade de France in the Six Nations this year.
However, France are as well known for their meltdowns as they are for their free-flowing style, and it was a moment of madness nine minutes into the second half that ultimately proved crucial in condemning them to a heart-breaking 20-19 defeat.
Guilhem Guirado was recalled to the starting XV for France despite rumours of a bust-up with coach Jacques Brunel, and the atmosphere in the dressing room is unlikely to have been a pleasant one after Sebastien Vahaamahina made a telling contribution to his own side’s downfall.
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It is unclear whether we will ever be able to understand the method behind the back-row’s decision to launch a swinging elbow into the side of Wainwright’s head, and his dismissal will go down in World Cup infamy as it proved the turning point in a French failure.
To their credit, Brunel’s men held up well despite their man disadvantage and still led 19-13 going into the final six minutes.
Yet Tomos Williams ripped the ball from Ollivon’s grasp yards out from the France line and it was collected by Justin Tipuric before Ross Moriarty, whose yellow card preceded the Vakatawa try, turned from villain to hero by scoring the winning try.
France may feel aggrieved, with the try awarded by the TMO despite the suggestion the ball went forward after being stolen from Ollivon, while many in the Wales camp will feel luck has evened out after Sam Warburton’s contentious red card in the semi eight years ago.
Brunel’s men only have themselves to blame, though. While the crucial try was questionable, Wales’ turnaround was aided by handling errors, missed kicks and an inexplicable moment of gross indiscipline.
Consistent also-ran in the Six Nations, France have lurched from one disappointment to the next since their agonising defeat to New Zealand in the 2011 World Cup final.
Gatland conceded the best team lost in Oita, but succinctly summed up the continued issue for a side that now infuriate more than they inspire.
“I thought France definitely improved since the Six Nations,” said Gatland. “Losing becomes a habit, but so does winning and we are in that habit at the moment.”
France are firmly in the losing habit and, with the next World Cup to be held on home soil, they have four years to change that by channelling the fire that can make them such an attractive side to watch into consistency, rather than self-inflicted collapses.
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