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A view on the French Rugby team

By Edward Griffiths
17/11/2003

Still the Most Beautiful Bridesmaid
In the 1999 World Cup, the French team played the most beautiful and the most memorable rugby, but came second.
Four years on, in Australia, the national side has once again delighted the watching rugby world, and once again they will return home without the Webb Ellis trophy as a reward. Ever cast as the most beautiful bridesmaid, the players have thrilled, delighted... and missed out on the main prize.
France has an admirable record in the Rugby World Cup: they were finalists at the inaugural tournament in 1987, quarter-finalists in 1991, narrowly beaten semi-finalists in 1995, finalists in the 1999 tournament, now losing semi-finalists once again.
Should this record be a cause for pride? Or does the fact that France have still never managed to win the event hint at something more seriously wrong with the team's approach?
Yes and yes.
First and foremost, nobody will underestimate the position that France hold in the highest echelons of world rugby. No national team, not the All Blacks, the Wallabies, the Springboks or England, has so consistently and lavishly entertained.
Generations of French players have had beautiful hands, and there have been few sights in any sport, anywhere, quite so thrilling as the spectacle of the blue three-quarters in full flow.
Frederic Michalak is the latest leaseholder of this inheritance, and the extravagantly gifted 21-year-old flyhalf has jinked, dashed and kicked his way to prominence in recent weeks.
The son of a stonemason, of Polish extract, he has succeeded despite his social circumstances and wonderfully emerged as one of the most dazzling stars at the 2003 World Cup.
However, in young Michalak, one can see the essence of both the glory and the lingering pity of French rugby.
He was brilliant in the decisive group match against Scotland, devastating in the quarterfinal romp over Ireland.
French supporters proclaimed him as 'Le Boss'.
Then, suddenly and ruthlessly, the talented, young flyhalf was confronted by the mind-freezing tension of a World Cup semi-final, by wet, awkward conditions in Sydney and by the marauding of the experienced, physical English loose forwards.
With his first touch, Michalak tried to land an up-and-under on the England fullback, but got under the ball, and kicked it straight up in the air. Possession was lost and, for the first time in the World Cup, the French star looked vulnerable and lost.
His day got worse. The hard-working French forwards earned penalties virtually in front of the posts, but Michalak's kicking form deserted him: in a tight contest, three points first slipped by to the right of the uprights, another three drifted to the right.
It was not his day, it was not France's day and, ten minutes from the end, the fallen pivot's suffering was relieved when he was substituted by the more experienced Merceron.
Here, encapsulated in one man's experience was the historic paradox of French rugby laid bare... the glory of his performances in Australia undone by failure to grind out unspectacular success when the going got tough, when the chips came down.
What can be done?
Nothing.
This is France, and this is French rugby. The coaches and the players know no other way to play, and they desire no other way to play. By nature, they accept death or glory.
One day, perhaps, flair and dare will earn the ultimate prize. The next Rugby World Cup, in 2007, will be held on French soil, and Michalak will be aged only 25, in his prime.
It may be instructive to recall that the French footballers had to wait until they hosted a World Cup before they could win a World Cup. Just maybe, ever playing beautiful rugby, their rugby-playing counterparts can look forward to the same experience.
By Edward Griffiths

A propos de l'auteur
Edward Griffiths a commencé sa carrière comme écrivain sportif dans Business Day et fut l'éditeur sportif le plus jeune engagé par Sunday Times en Afrique du Sud. Il fut aussi le CEO (Directeur) of the South African Rugby Football Union, et a écrit 17 livres. Parmi ces livres, les biographies de Naas Botha, Kepler Wessels, Kitch Christie, Jonty Rhodes et Joost van der Westhuizen, sans oublié The Captains sur les Springboks.

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