|Having a ball: but the French coach said he would keep a tight rein on his players ahead of the final [GALLO/GETTY]|
Marc Lievremont was seconds away from the perfect entrance.
The build-up to the France head coach’s press conference, the day after his team reached the Rugby World Cup final, was more akin to a big fight-night at Madison Square Garden than a routine media session at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Auckland.
Excited French journalists had put their hands in the air and cheered when a photographer pumped up the conference room’s sound system to play Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger in anticipation of Lievremont’s arrival on Sunday.
There were shout of “Non! Non!” and boos when the team’s media manager turned the music off, allowing the coach to stalk into the room in relative silence.
Survivor’s tune would have been apt, given that France’s 9-8 defeat of Wales the night before gave an underperforming team passage to their first final in 12 years.
As the jovial atmosphere dissipated, Lievremont flexed his biceps and his moustache, and made it clear that he was in no mood to party like it was 1999.
“After the game (against Wales) I asked the players not to go out and celebrate, but later they did,” said the former flanker, who played and lost against Australia in the 1999 final.
“The problem is that we are not world champions yet. We have only qualified for the final.
“This reminds me of 1999 when we had four nights of celebrations for (winning) the semi-final and I don’t want that this time around.”
Lievremont has hardly had the most harmonious relationship with his players, who during the group stages of this World Cup looked like they might repeat the antics of their football compatriots with a rebellion against the management.
But defeats to New Zealand and Tonga were followed up with the conquest of England in the quarter-finals, and then a stubborn victory over a Wales team who were reduced to 14 men for most of the match at Eden Park on Saturday night.
French journalists have shown support for Lievremont by copying his newly-grown moustache, and the winning habit appears to have created a truce within the squad.
“It’s really not very important,” Lievremont said of the players’ night out.
“It is not a few cigarettes, or a dessert after dinner, or a few drinks that are going to affect preparations for the final.”
That final will either be against New Zealand – whom France lost to in the 1987 final – or Australia again, depending on Sunday night’s semi-final between those rivals at Eden Park.
France’s progress to the showpiece on October 23 came partly due to the sending-off of Wales captain Sam Warburton for a dangerous tackle on Vincent Clerc 18 minutes into the game.
But only a dogged defence, led by man-of-the-match Julien Bonnaire, kept the Welsh at bay to win the game by one point.
Wales coach Warren Gatland had said he felt aggrieved at the decision to send off Warburton for a dump tackle on Clerc, but France’s forwards coach Dave Ellis, a former trainer in the rival Rugby League code, said he had no doubts.
“I think it was a fantastic Rugby League tackle. Unfortunately we’re not playing Rugby League, and in Rugby Union you can’t do that,” he said.
“The red card was totally justified.
“It was difficult to play against Wales and it was even more difficult when they went down to 14. The Welsh have great character.”
Many neutrals had been unwilling to accept French victory with any grace after Saturday, with Lievremont saying the reaction was offensive to his players.
“I was reading in the Kiwi press about France’s ‘insulting’ qualification,” said the Senegal-born 42-year-old.
“They listed other instances of injustices and two were by England in 2003 (when England won the World Cup).
“If that’s the case, I’ll take that. But it is insulting to say that with reference to the French team.”