It was a breathless match between arguably the two most in-form teams in world rugby – France, the reigning Grand Slam Champions and Ireland, the number one ranked team in the world.
Unfortunately, due to the peculiarities of the World Cup draw which was made in 2020, the thrilling match will not be a World Cup Final preview, as both teams are on the same half of the draw, and destined to meet at either the quarter-final or semi-final stage.
However, it is very possible that one of those two teams will end up as world champions, and with home-soil advantage, the case for France is pretty compelling.
For French rugby, the World Cup represents a series of missed opportunities. Les Bleus have competed in every tournament since the World Cup began in 1987 and have reached the final on three occasions, of all the Six Nations sides, only England has a better record.
Yet, the narrative of France at the World Cup has been one characterised by self-implosions. 2007 springs to mind, when the French were hosts and strong contenders before losing to Argentina in Paris in the opening match.
Les Tricolores followed this with a quarter-final victory over New Zealand in Cardiff, only France could be so awful one week and so brilliant the next.
The 2007 campaign ended in a semi-final defeat to England, after finishing the break 5–6 ahead the hosts lost 14-9. Their World Cup misery was complete with a defeat to Argentina again in the bronze medal match.
Four years later in 2011, France’s World Cup campaign was marked by turmoil within the camp; reports before the tournament indicated as many as 25 of the 30-member squad had turned against head coach Marc Lièvremont.
In pool play, France had unimpressive wins over Japan and Canada, an expected loss to New Zealand, and a shock loss to Tonga.
Despite the losses, they qualified for the knockout stage. At this time, the players effectively rebelled against Lièvremont; after the tournament, Harinordoquy would tell the French rugby publication Midi Olympique, “We had to free ourselves from his supervision.”
In true French fashion, the team responded by defeating England 19–12 in the quarter-final and controversially beating Wales 9–8 in the semi-final
The French proved admirable opponents in the final, however, losing out to hosts New Zealand 8–7 to finish second for the third time in a Rugby World Cup.
The 2011 tournament left many wondering if the French would kick on, under a new head coach as a unified team. However, the ensuing decade was something of a decline for French rugby, punctuated by moments of individual brilliance.
Even with current head coach Fabien Galthié in charge, the 2019 World Cup campaign in Japan exposed France’s tendency to implode – 17 points ahead in the first half against Argentina and Tonga only to be hanging on by a thread in the final stages. In the quarter-final, Les Bleus were 12-0 up against Wales but failed to score a point in the second half, in part due to the dismissal of Sébastien Vahaamahina for violent conduct – they lost the game 20-19.
Since the tournament’s inception in 1987, Ireland has never progressed beyond the quarter-final stage – it’s a classic sporting curse, equal to England and penalty shootouts or Tim Henman and Wimbledon semi-finals.
The closest Ireland has come to a semi-final was back in 2015, when they lost to Argentina at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. Ireland had defeated France in the last pool game, avoiding a quarter-final clash with New Zealand in the process. A match against underdogs Argentina was seen as Ireland’s best-ever opportunity to break the quarter-final curse, but, after coming back from a 17-point deficit to come within 3 points of The Pumas, Ireland eventually lost 43–20.
Before the defeat to Ireland in the Six Nations, France were on an unbeaten run since 2021. Les Bleus played 10 Test matches last year and won them all, including victories against South Africa and Australia as well as a Six Nations Grand Slam.
The French also boast some of the finest talents in world Rugby such as star scrum-half Antoine Dupont, winger Damian Penaud and centre Gaël Fickou, not to mention lock Cameron Woki and centre Jonathan Danty who were both absent through injury for the Ireland match.
Combine this with home-soil advantage and a clear, coherent strategy under coach Fabien Galthié and France should be a force to be reckoned with.
As a result, some of the rankings have changed but the draw has remained the same.
By March 2022, the top-four ranked teams were South Africa, Six Nations champions France, the All Blacks and Ireland. Despite this, all teams will be in the same half of the draw at the 2023 World Cup, meaning two of them will not make it beyond the quarter-finals.
To add insult to injury France were drawn into the same pool as three-time champions New Zealand.
A repeat performance of that quarter-final in 2007 and French rugby fans will certainly start believing that this is their year.
It’s a tough draw but the French have already proven they can go unbeaten, week after week, at last year’s Six Nations so why not on the world stage in their back garden?
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