France head to World Cup with limited ambition

PARIS (AP) — The Rugby World Cup could be problematic for a France team struggling to emerge from a slump which has turned confident players into doubtful ones.

A reputation for flair has been eroded by miserable seasons of Six Nations mediocrity. France has become a lineup dogged by nerves, lacking fitness and composure, and repeatedly cracking under pressure late in games. And perhaps still mentally scarred by the 62-13 hammering by New Zealand at the last World Cup.

It makes for grim reading that France, a three-time Rugby World Cup finalist, has not placed higher than third in the past eight Six Nations tournaments.  The French are in a tough pool in Japan along with England, Argentina, Tonga and the United States (US), and only two teams from each group can progress to the quarterfinals.

Coaches have come and gone since France pushed the All Blacks hard in the 2011 final, losing by one point under the maverick yet effective leadership of Marc Lievremont. Philippe Saint-Andre’s chopping-and-changing didn’t work; Guy Noves stuck to old methods but could not replicate his resounding club success at Toulouse.

The situation deteriorated under Jacques Brunel, with France hitting new lows: a home draw against Japan, a home loss to Fiji and a crushing 44-8 defeat away to England. Those were matches littered with mistakes by the French, a predictable running game, a lack of physical impact, staggering lapses in concentration, players critical of management.

The stubborn Brunel has appeared to be out of his depth against better-coached teams. Something had to give, but rather than firing Brunel — as many fans demanded — French Rugby Federation President Bernard Laporte made a more diplomatic move in appointing Fabien Galthié as Brunel’s assistant coach.

It spared Brunel the humiliation of being fired and gave the critics some of what they asked for, while putting the modern-minded Galthié perfectly into position to take charge full-time following the World Cup in Japan.

Galthié has revamped the backroom staff, urgently improving poor fitness levels and sharpening up dull tactics. The French performances have looked better in the three games since Galthié was appointed, scoring 13 tries and one penalty try in home wins against Scotland (32-3) and Italy (47-19) and a 17-14 loss away to the Scots.

Encouragingly, France played with better width and attacking intent. And some fine talents are emerging — notably 20-year-old flyhalf Romain Ntamack; right winger Damian Penaud (22) and Grégory Alldritt. Left winger Aliveriti Raka made a try-scoring debut two minutes into the win against Scotland.