It was another sticky night at the World Cup, although this time you couldn’t really be sure whether it was the heat, the humidity, or the stress that had France sweating. Either way, with 15 minutes to play, they found themselves defending a three-point lead, 12-9 up against a spirited, stubborn USA who just wouldn’t roll over. And while France pulled away after that, and ended up winning 33-9, their coach, Jacques Brunel, did not seem too convinced himself. “He played well and he didn’t play well,” was Brunel gnomic comment about one of his players. That about covered the team’s performance, too.
Brunel blamed it on the conditions. “It was very humid, and we weren’t able to control the match, the ball was very slippery and we made a lot of mistakes.” They sure did. The French lived up to all the favourite old stereotypes. They were wretchedly flaky, glaringly flawed, recklessly indisciplined, and utterly fantastic on the occasions they managed to hold on to the ball. Much more of this and they might beat anyone in this World Cup, much more of this and they might just blow up. They scored five tries, and four of them were utterly glorious.
In the first half the USA had the better of them in every way except the one that mattered most. They had more of the territory, and more of the possession, and their well-drilled, powerful pack had a clear advantage at the scrum, winning six out of eight with one against the head. Their problem was that in between all that, the French kept doing that thing they do, or that thing they always used to. They took the lead with a try right out of rose-tinted memory.
One minute, the USA’s Martin Iosefo was haring up the left wing chasing his own kick into the French territory, the next, everything had flipped, and the French were flooding back down the field. Their tighthead, Emerick Setiano, far too fast and fleet to be a prop, trampled through one tackle, their lock, Bernard Le Roux, broke another, and then, in the next phase, Camille Lopez knocked a dainty little chip over the rush defence. Yoann Huget plucked it out of the air mid-stride as he sprinted to the try-line.
Lopez made their second too, with a fine cross-field kick back against the grain of play, all the way to Alivereti Raka on the far wing. While their fly-half is in this form, the French will fancy their chances of scoring against any defence in the tournament. Given how indisciplined they were the rest of the time, the feeling will be mutual. They conceded eight penalties in the first half alone, some of them so cynical that they were lucky it only cost them six points, and not a spell or two in the sin-bin, too.
They tightened up at half-time, when they switched around their entire front row, which improved their set-pieces, too. Still, the score was stuck at 12-6 for the next 25 minutes, till AJ MacGinty kicked his third penalty for the USA. That seemed to spur the French into life. They rolled down field after the restart, through 15 phases, and Gaël Fickou burrowed over from close range. Baptiste Serin picked up their fourth soon after, finishing off a merry spree of broken-field running after another brilliant kick by Lopez. Jefferson Poirot got the last at the back of a rolling maul.
Even though his team have faced France and England in back-to-back matches, the USA’s coach Gary Gold was not going to be suckered into making predictions about how the pool game between the two of them is going to play out next week.
“It’s difficult because you’ll find they’re two very different teams when they’re going at each other,” Gold explained, “but a nil-nil draw would suit us perfectly.” The way France are playing, that’s the one result you can rule out.