Sat, Mar 27, 2004 - Page 18 News List

France gets ready to flatten England

ALL TO PLAY FOR Although they can't win the Grand Slam, Clive Woodward's men can still capture the Six Nation's championship if they beat unbeaten France

REUTERS , Paris

Clive Woodward perhaps made a strategic error when he said England "would have hammered" France in the World Cup semi-final "if the weather had been good."

Four months later, defeat in Sydney still haunts and hurts the French and such was their disappointment that stoking the fires can only reinforce their desire of flattening what they call "England's arrogance" when the sides meet again in their Six Nations decider at the Stade de France today.

When they woke up on Nov. 16 at their palatial hotel on Bondi Beach, the French players were all hope and glory.

Then the curtains opened on one of the most famous beaches in the world and the news quickly ran from room to room: it was raining over Sydney.

"We couldn't believe it," recalls fullback Nicolas Brusque. "We were not expecting rain, not in Sydney, not at this time of the year, not on that day. The worst moment was probably the bus ride to the Olympic Stadium. Nobody spoke. We were all looking at the rain banging on the windows."

It was as if the sky had fallen in on the French players who had been brimming with composure, spirit and confidence after quietly disposing of pool opponents Fiji, Japan, Scotland and the US and crushing Ireland 43-21 in their quarter-final, having charged into a 27-0 lead at halftime.

Dismissed as outsiders before the World Cup, France were now rated on a par with England, New Zealand and Australia.

As a sign of their near-perfect displays, Frederic Michalak, who had just turned 21 in Australia, had become the darling of the media and the flyhalf of the tournament.

Accurate with the boot, devastating on the break, he was set to dethrone Jonny Wilkinson, who had failed to live up to his reputation as England struggled against Samoa in the group stage and only defeated Wales 28-17 after being down 10-3 at halftime in their quarter-final.

When referee Paddy O'Brien drew the curtains on the semi-final, England had triumphed 24-7.

Wilkinson had scored all England's points with five penalties and three drop goals. Michalak, who had been replaced in the 63rd minute, was shattered and so were all the French players and coaches.

"I was disgusted with myself and by such a disgusting game," Michalak says.

"Today, I have the feeling we didn't stand up to the pressure. We sank inexorably and we didn't manage to get our heads above water," adds Fabien Pelous.

"When we saw that we were not taking our chances and that they were scoring inexorably at every opportunity, we tried to react but it wasn't easy mentally. Suddenly we collapsed and spent the last 10 minutes in our own 22," recalls flanker Olivier Magne.

Four months later, the French admit that England were "the best team on the day" but they are still arguing over the influence of the rain on the result.

"Of course, the rain played a major part, not by itself, but because we were not expecting it and because it disrupted our game plan and our mental preparation," Brusque says.

"The rain had nothing to do with our defeat. If some people are finding such an excuse, I'm sorry for them," says Pelous.

At the end of the semi-final, coach Bernard Laporte was the first to pay tribute to England's victory.

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