France in cautious mood ahead of Tonga match

AP30 September 2011
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French rugby team coach Marc Lievremont, right, and Imanol Harinordoquy watch performers during a welcome ceremony at Wellington airport, New Zealand, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. France will play Tonga in their next Rugby World Cup match on Saturday, Oct. 1. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Fear of World Cup elimination is giving France coach Marc Lievremont the jitters on the eve of a decisive match against Tonga.

Two-time finalist France, which has advanced to the knockout stage of every Rugby World Cup to date, can lose Saturday's match and still progress. But it gets complicated if Tonga produce an upset.

But France is low on confidence and has played inconsistently so far, which leaves Lievremont with a nagging feeling.

"The risk is that we lose the game and pack our bags on Sunday morning to go back home," he said Friday. "It gives me a stomach ache to think that it's possible, but that's the way it is. We didn't manage to get the (bonus) point against New Zealand that would have been enough to qualify."

The odds remain heavily in France's favor, however, as it has 10 competition points — from wins against Japan and Canada both secured with a bonus point — to Tonga's five.

Tonga must score four tries and win by more than a seven-point margin to reach its first ever quarterfinal.

Wellington's stadium will be packed with the red flags and noisy throngs of Tonga's support.

"They will give their all in this match, they have everything to win, not much to lose," Lievremont said of Tonga. "They will probably be very aggressive in front of many fans who will encourage them. Those are enough reasons to take them very seriously ... If we qualify by playing well, that's great, but the main thing is to win."

France hooker William Servat is heading into the game as if he were preparing for an away match.

"They will have a lot of close friends and family there, their strength will be tenfold," he said. "Because they have to win and get a bonus point, Tonga will come at us."

Tonga captain Finau Maka returns from a rib injury and wasted little time stoking up the pressure on the French when he highlighted what he thought were weaknesses in France's midfield and in the frontrow.

"Maybe their centers are weak, just because I think (Aurelien) Rougerie's not a center, him and Maxime (Mermoz) haven't played together (much)," Maka said. "Maybe their front row ... we can target their scrum."

France captain Thierry Dusautoir brushed away Maka's thoughts as mind games.

"I don't really worry about this. I'm focusing on my team and what we're going to do tomorrow," France he said. "I accept his comments, he's not the only one who thinks we have a lot of weaknesses. But I don't really care about this."

Tonga lost its opening match to New Zealand and surprisingly lost to Canada before beating Japan 31-18 on Sept. 21.

"They are playing better and better rugby since they started against the," All Blacks, Dusautoir said. "It will be a tough game for us."

The rival players are familiar, with many of the Tongans playing or having played in France's elite Top 14 league. There will be few surprises, and no letting up in what promises to be a physical battle in the scrum.

"They have a strong setpiece, we need to be up there with the forwards, they are really physical in their forward pack," said Tonga prop Kisi Pulu, who plays for French club Perpignan. "We need to keep the physical side of things going to keep it up with the French boys."

Although France winger Vincent Clerc has scored four tries, the French backline has failed to fire so far. Only a dominant showing in the scrum will give the backs the chance to put their running game in place.

"We've seen their strength, they've got one huge lad (Soane Tonga'uiha). They will be faster than they used to be in the put-in," Servat said. "If we lose that, it will be difficult to get back on top of them.

"We saw the determination they had in their eyes against the All Blacks, and what they tried to do on the field," Servat added. "We can expect just as much determination against us."

France, which will be without first-choice prop Nicolas Mas, can barely afford another injury in the scrum.

Mas resumed light training on Thursday as he bids to recover from a hamstring strain in time for the quarterfinals.

Clerc is looking for his 30th international try, but will probably have to take some big hits to reach that milestone.

"There's a bit of pressure and a bit of fear. We'll have to stand up to them physically and take the lead," he said. "We're going to have to make the most of our chances to avoid getting caught up and making for a difficult match."

Despite France's team being packed with experienced players, many have played more than 50 tests, it still has an experimental look to it.

The midfield pairing of Rougerie and Mermoz will be starting for only the third time. The halfback pairing of Dimitri Yachvili and flyhalf Morgan Parra — who is usually a scrumhalf — was put in place against the All Blacks after Lievremont surprisingly dropped his regular flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc.

"Morgan's getting involved a lot, talking a lot, always asking for advice and studying the videos," Lievremont said.

If France is experimental with its lineups, then Tonga can be just as erratic out on the field.

"The problem with this team is that we've never known what their main strength is," Parra said. "They have so much individual quality, they can go from a devil-may-care rugby to a structured rugby."

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