Rugby World Cup: How the home nations fared in the opening weekend
France will come to a standstill again this evening with all eyes turned to the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille. When Le XV de France plays these days, it is a national event. A domestic TV audience of 15.5million tuned in to watch the World Cup hosts’ 27-13 victory over New Zealand last Friday with thousands more packed into the fan zones like the Rugby Village in Paris’ Place de la Concorde that have sprung up across the country.
Rugby is on everyone’s lips and images of the star players are everywhere. No matter that the opponents are Uruguay tonight, not the All Blacks and a largely shadow French side on show. Les Bleus have cast a spell and a nation is in thrall to them.
“We all think France will be world champions because we’ve had an extraordinary Test cycle over the last four years and we have a generation of players who allow us to dream,” said former France prop Sylvain Marconnet, who played in the 2003 World Cup semi-final against England.
“I don’t think it’s an insult to my team-mates to say that this generation is much better than ours. Here we have a group of players who are world-class in their positions. I’m thinking of Baille, Marchand, Alldritt, Dupont – who is certainly the best player in the world – and Jalibert who can finish the World Cup as the best player in the world.
“I can feel it; he has the potential. We also have players like Penaud and Ramos who are serial scorers. I think we’re producing some legends of the sport.”
It is a love affair with the national team which had cooled with quarterfinal exits at the last two World Cups and the Six Nations an annual disappointment. The French club game was the big show with its flood of foreign imports who were attractive names but acting as a collective roadblock.
But the deal struck with the Top 14 clubs to field a minimum number of French-qualified players has proved a game changer. “There was a period with the arrival of professionalism when we were in a hurry, we needed players, so we went looking for them in the four corners of the world,” said Marconnet.
“But the league and the federation have now made sure that young French players can play in the Top 14 with a quota system that helped launch a whole bunch of youngsters and today, France is a huge reservoir of talent. I’m good friends with a lot of Top 14 coaches who say to me: ‘You should see what’s coming, it’s exceptional, we’ve got talent everywhere’.
“Over the last five years, we’ve been under-20 world champions three times, so that’s saying something.” Now for the big one.
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There are expectations that come with a record of 30 wins in their last 35 Tests and the last time France hosted the World Cup, a tournament Marconnet missed having broken his leg skiing six months beforehand, they hit the buffers in a fog of anxiety against Les Rosbifs in the semi-final.
But he believes there is a material difference with this more robust France side. “We failed in 2007 because we didn’t manage our emotions well, we missed out on the World Cup because of the pressure,” he said.
“So, for the last four years, Fabien Galthie has been trying to avoid putting any emotion into the preparation. For us, this psychological aspect is new, it’s something we’ve never experienced before. In every way this is the best generation we’ve ever had.”
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