Last week we saw two northern hemisphere teams play pragmatic, considered and intelligent rugby. Many believe that this was tantamount to ‘spoiling’ as it prevented the undoubted ‘ball in hand’ superiority of Australia and New Zealand from surfacing and winning the day. This must have been particularly difficult for a French side that has the ability to destroy opposition with flair, power and creativity. The forgotten man Frederic Michalak is ‘old France’ personified. In his career thus far he has at times displayed poor decision-making, inconsistency and defensive ineptitude punctuated by moments of sublime creative play. His vision, skill and talent make him the ultimate flair player and France’s trump card in any tight game. Tomorrow night, Bernard Laporte - or the Mad Professor as many like to call him – will again start with the containing kicking of Lionel Beauxis in an unchanged team from that which so superbly despatched the All Blacks in Cardiff.
In the run up to sporting occasions of this magnitude, people like to look at individual duels that could potentially dictate the eventual outcome. Wilkinson vs. Beauxis/Michalak is one that gets attention, as these are invariably the names on the score sheet. Beauxis will eventually make way for his mercurial compatriot but England will hope that the game is won before Michalak has a chance to make an impact. I will freely admit that I am biased but Jonny Wilkinson is the complete fly half. England fans should be confident that if he stays fit, he would outshine any pretender that the ‘Mad Professor’ throws into the fray. His penalty kicking is often praised, but Wilkinson is the heartbeat of an English side that, despite some old legs, boasts the biggest hearts in world rugby. The Australia game was not only about the victory but the manner in which it was achieved. The attitude, work rate, commitment, power and concentration that Vickery’s team displayed, brought an air of patriotism into my living room. If Wilkinson kicks his goals, England will win tomorrow.
The form of Andrew Sheridan, Simon Shaw and resurgent skipper Phil Vickery is perfectly timed. Ball carrying or ‘gaining those hard yards’ is essential for Wilkinson to do what he does best. Against the Wallabies England competed manfully at every breakdown, something that will be more difficult against Les Bleus with the inclusion of Flanker Serge Betson. His experience and strength are invaluable assets to the French and England can only be disappointed that he is fit to play. England must avoid turnovers even if it means, as Shaun Edwards put it, “setting themselves shorter targets” and preventing the French from isolating ball carriers. England fans must be aware that although we are strong in the scrum, we simply will not destroy the French as we did the Aussies with the brute strength of our pack. The South African born, Pieter De Villiers makes Matt Dunning look like my sister and although it will be an interesting battle, do not expect dominance from either side.
One thing is for certain; with both coaches naming unchanged squads, there should not be too many surprises. Both teams have the ability to win the game, although on paper the French have the marginally better personnel, especially at Centre where in Yannick Jauzion they have an experienced, world-class performer. Another Key duel will be between the Toulouse centre and Matthew Tait, the young Newcastle Falcons and England Sevens star. Tait has the talent and attitude but if he allows his opposite number to break tackles, then an easy victory could be coming France’s way.
All in all, I must give the edge to France but only because England perform better as underdogs. I would enjoy nothing more than to see pictures of French fans of all ages crying blue tears as their World Cup dream is shattered for another four years at the hands of the old enemy. This is without doubt their best chance to win a world cup for a long while. With home advantage and with New Zealand and Australia already eliminated they are expected to, at the very least, make the final. It is this expectation that the French mindset cannot deal with, as they showed against Argentina in the opening game. If England can contain the French for half an hour, I expect the fans to start putting pressure on their team. England need to be in the game with twenty minutes to go. If they do so then I am confident our boys will deal with such an atmosphere better than a talented but mentally inferior French side.