Fri, Sep 07, 2007 - Page 24 News List

France face bogey team

PERFECT OPENER All France expects Les bleus to defy the bookies' odds and go all the way this year, but first there is the minor matter of overcoming fired-up Argentina

AP , PARIS

A giant rugby ball hangs from the Eiffel tower in Paris on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AP

Four Six Nations titles in six years, including two Grand Slams, sounds like enough to satisfy the French rugby fans.

Not at all. What they really want is a world title.

As host to the sixth Rugby World Cup, the French team is under enormous pressure to win a first title after 20 years of watching rivals New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England capture the trophy.

The French have twice been runners up -- to New Zealand in 1987 and Australia in 1999. Now with home advantage, Bernard Laporte's team has its best chance.

"We are playing the World Cup at home. We are asking all our supporters to wear a blue jersey on Friday at the Stade de France," Laporte said ahead of today's opening game against Argentina. "We are asking them to share our feelings."

According to the bookmakers, France won't get further than the semi-final.

They have New Zealand as the hot 1-2 favorite to win the title for the second time and South Africa as second favorite ahead of the French. If the 20-nation championship goes according to form, then New Zealand should meet Australia in one semi-final and France and South Africa will meet in the other.

Laporte's team begins its campaign with a tricky game against Argentina at the Stade de France. The Pumas have a powerful and effective pack and their backs have improved in the past year. But Laporte has an abundance of talent to call on as he bids to make sure the French start with a victory.

"We are confident because so far everything is fine," Laporte said. "We have never been so well prepared. The 30 players are all fit and concentrated on training. Our warm-up games went well. We are all longing for the tournament to start because there is always a lot of excitement before the first game."

In charge of the national team since 1999, Laporte has a reputation for making unexpected and frequent changes to his lineup. His judgment was questioned before this year's Six Nations championship when he recalled flyhalf David Skrela for his second international appearance six years after his first.

But Skrela was one of the key players in France's Six Nations triumph and, despite having Frederic Michalak and young talent Lionel Beauxis in the squad, Laporte is counting on him to be the midfield creator to unlock defenses and lead the French to the final.

If the French can match the form that has made them the strongest challenger from Europe, then Ireland and Argentina should be fighting over the other quarter-final spot from Group D.

A full match schedule will be available in tomorrow's edition.

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