AUCKLAND // Cast in the role of villains ahead of the Rugby World Cup final, France are attempting to turn the disapproval of the rugby world into a positive force they can channel in the final on Sunday.
The French are sure to face a ferocious onslaught from an All Blacks side backed by a New Zealand public desperate to win the World Cup after 24 barren years.
France have found themselves the targets of contempt, ahead of their clash at Eden Park, as much for their turgid rugby as for the identity of their opponents.
"For several weeks now, it has been us against the world," Morgan Parra, the France fly-half, said yesterday. "We felt, after beating England [in the quarter-final], we might have some more support.
"We felt, after beating Wales [in the semi], we might have some more support … but yet again, it is us against the world. So we are trying to keep ourselves cocooned in this bubble. Some people are saying we don't deserve to be where we are - criticism from supporters or from certain England and Wales players, saying we don't belong in the final - [and] that hurts."
For one half of their quarter-final win over England, France played the dashing, fluid rugby they have prided themselves on through the years. But for the rest of their campaign, and never more so than in their 9-8 semi-final win over Wales, they have played a dull, staccato set-play and kicks, winning few admirers.
Even their own coach, Marc Lievremont, has been critical about their performances, creating yet more tension in the camp and drawing the ire of senior squad members. Vincent Clerc, the winger, said the French had to be given some credit for their bellicose showing in New Zealand.
"This is the World Cup final … you can put some of it down to good fortune, but we are not here by chance or coincidence," he said.
France's patchy form going into the World Cup final will have no bearing on what remains a two-horse race, the All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen said Thursday.
He added that his thoughts were not at all on his future, with many pundits claiming he will take over from coach Graham Henry after Sunday's match, but on securing victory in the final. "All I'm planning for is winning a game," said Hansen, who is assistant to Henry alongside Wayne Smith, the latter looking after the backs with Hansen responsible for the forwards. "Like us, they've earned the right to arrive at Eden Park and play at 9pm on Sunday. It's a two-horse race and both teams will be doing their utmost to win it."
THIRD-PLACE MEDAL WORTH FIGHTING FOR
Australia and Wales face off in the third-place play-off at Eden Park on Friday with the aim of going home with something tangible.
"The bronze medal won't be as sweet as a winner's medal but it's something we can take away from this and be proud of our efforts," said James Horwill, the Wallabies captain, a statement echoed by the Welsh.
"We have come a long way and put together a string of performances that the nation can be proud of so far in New Zealand, and we need to ensure that the history books reflect what we know we are capable of, and it is only by beating the Wallabies on Friday night that we feel this will be achieved," said Warren Gatland, the Wales coach.