Sat, Nov 01, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Eagles outclassed by French flair

WORLD CUPSouth-African born center Liebenberg scored three tries as France brought the US back down to earth after their thrilling victory against Japan

AP , WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA

Mose Timoteo of the US flies through the air as he passes the ball from out of a scrum during the Rugby World Cup match against France in Woolongong, Australia, yesterday.

PHOTO: AP

Center Brian Liebenberg celebrated his first World Cup appearance yesterday with a hat trick as France's reserve squad cruised past the US 41-14 to complete a clean sweep of Pool B.

The French already had their ticket to the playoffs after crushing Scotland last week, and coach Bernard Laporte held back his best players ahead of an expected quarterfinal showdown with Ireland.

But Liebenberg and his teammates didn't hold back at Wollongong's WIN Stadium, hoping not only to win future run-outs but also to erase memories of the past. Eleven of the starters were at Twickenham in September when the French B team suffered a humiliating 45-15 loss to England's first-choice squad.

"This was a match we had to win," said Laporte. "It's obvious we'd prefer to head into the quarterfinals coming off a strong 40-point victory than after turning in a mediocre performance."

France travels next to Melbourne to play the loser of today's Australia-Ireland match, which the Wallabies are favored to win in front of a home crowd.

The Eagles fell to 1-3, crashing back to earth after beating Japan earlier this week for their first victory at the World Cup since 1987. But they refused to give up after ending the first half behind 26-0, putting together two tries in the final 40 minutes

The Americans also took home a team record for flyhalf Mike Hercus, who ran for a try and converted two to bring his tournament total to an Eagles-best 51.

"I'm a very proud man," said coach Tom Billups. "I think that the boys are very resilient."

But the hero of the evening was France's Liebenberg, who was suiting up for the first time at the World Cup and making only his fourth appearance in a French jersey since his debut August.

"I was pretty happy just to get a game in the World Cup," said the South African-born Stade Francais center. "The three tries were just a bonus. If your forwards are giving you great ball like they were tonight I think you can just put the ball over the line."

The French jumped ahead 3-0 when the Eagles were caught offside three minutes into the action. Flyhalf Gerald Merceron hit the kick from about 25m out but struggled throughout the evening in windy conditions.

A fumble of a Traille kick set up Merceron's second penalty goal, a chip shot in front of the posts that put France ahead 6-0 nine minutes into the action.

Elusive fullback Clement Pointrenaud led the French attack. After a mazy run was wasted by a French penalty, the 21-year-old Stade Toulousain fullback broke away in the 13th minute for a 40m scamper that set up a move finished by Liebenberg.

Liebenberg was a surprise inclusion in the French team after making his debut against Romania in August. Backing up Tony Marsh, Yannick Jauzion and Traille, he watched France's first three matches from the stands.

Down 11-0, the Eagles struggled to mount an attack.

Instead it was Dimitri Yachvili emerging with the ball from an American-fed scrum in front of the posts, starting a move that ended with Liebenberg waltzing across for his second five-pointer of the evening.

Poitrenaud and Yachvili almost teamed up for a third French try. Yachvili sprung his fullback along the sideline and Poitrenaud returned the ball near the goal line, but the scrumhalf's leg scraped the touch line before he touched down.

The French kept the pressure on, rolling a maul over the line for a five-pointer by prop Jean-Baptiste Poux. A hand in the ruck shortly before halftime gave Merceron an easy chance to increase the margin to 26-0.

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