It is easy to overplay metaphors, but the build-up to the Rugby World Cup final in Auckland on Sunday resembles a nest of vipers set against, well, a squad of good rugby players.
The metaphor falls down immediately of course. The French are not a basket of serpents. They are a squad of good rugby players, just as New Zealand are. It’s just that, from the way they are acting, you wouldn’t imagine that they are building up to the best moment of their careers.
World Cup final week is a strange one. Players and coaches meet with the media every day. In truth, there is not much more to say than, “We are training for the final.”
Unfortunately, that won’t wash. We need quotes, boys. And people who are interested in rugby need the media to produce something for them to be interested in.
But whereas New Zealand – the hosts, and France’s opponents at Eden Park on October 23 – have been dealing with this in a laid-back, human style, the French are making life difficult for themselves.
Aurelien Rougerie (age 31) completed a pouty-lipped and irritable exchange with a French journalist before walking out of a press conference on Wednesday, leaving former captain Lionel Nallet to field questions.
Nallet could not have been more polite or patient with the press. But, even in these days of player power, his words were still astonishing in the context of a French squad that is in the World Cup final.
Asked about his coach, Marc Lievremont, having described some players as “spoilt brats” earlier in the week, Nallet did not hide his feelings.
“I did not appreciate it at all but that is just my opinion. We already knew that the week was going to be complicated enough so perhaps there was no reason to add to that pressure,” he said.
“It wasn’t anything that unsettled me in any particular way. I would like to repeat once again that it was not important.
“Quite truthfully I did not like what he said. I do not want to go on about it. We have a final to play and we are not going to be focussing on things like this.”
Fair enough, it was not important. Maybe the honesty is refreshing. But one cannot imagine Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, or Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, or Graham Henry with the All Blacks, allowing his players to speak like this.
I doubt the All Blacks would say it even if they were thinking it, and hard feelings towards the coach are nothing new in any squad.
Lievremont had earlier expressed contrition.
“I think I said those words to put pressure on (the players),” he said, referring to his criticism of a players’ night out after the 9-8 semi-final win over Wales.
“But when I read those words in the written press, I think I could have stayed quiet.”
Perhaps. But there should be no perhaps with a coach, at least in public. Lievremont has led his squad to a World Cup final.
After the tournament, he gives way to Phillipe Saint-Andre. But the fact is, he could be about to make the French into world champions for the first time. To say the coach doesn’t matter is a fallacy – he will be blamed just as much as the players if they lose on Sunday. He has earned some support.
You cannot go anywhere, or switch on any TV or radio in New Zealand this week, without being reminded how much this final means to New Zealanders.
Rugby is not the world game, but this means more here than a football World Cup would mean to England, or a tennis Grand Slam would mean to Andy Murray, or even a cricket World Cup would mean to a minor power like Bangladesh.
Rugby here is more than a pursuit, or a sport, or an obsession. You have to be here and know the people to know what it means to them.
The status of the All Blacks shirt is almost mythological, steeped in a Kiwi and Maori history. No, it is not life or death, but it is close to that. An attempt at description would be hyperbolic.
But that alone cannot win rugby matches. Victory to New Zealand on Sunday would mean an end of 24 years of hurt – or, more accurately, 20 – after they last won the trophy in 1987.
The French have played badly all tournament, the All Blacks magnificently. But the French are here thanks to an unattractive, effective defence. And that is something to be feared more than their reputation for exciting play.
“With French flair, I think the issue is that people have a loss of memory,” Lievremont, who lost the 1999 final to Australia as a player, said on Wednesday.
“In 1999 the French flair was seriously absent. I should know that, because I was there. In 1995 and 2007 as well, the same in 1987 (when France lost to New Zealand in the final).
“Now we are in the final, and if we have to win this match playing the same way we did against Wales, then we will do so.
“On the day, 15 men in white and 15 men in black will come onto the pitch – and the best team will win.”