PARIS (Reuters) - Three-times runnersup France head to the World Cup knowing that defeat to Argentina in their opening game in Japan might lead to them being knocked out in the pool stage for the first time.
‘Les Bleus’ have been well short of their best over the past few years and lost in the quarter-finals four years ago, matching their worst performance at a World Cup.
France will also face England, Tonga and the United States in Pool C but it is their group opener against the Pumas on Sept. 21 that is likely to determine the fate of Jacques Brunel’s side.
Defeat would leave them needing a win over England to have any chance of advancing to the quarter-final stage but in their last 10 meetings they have beaten the English only three times.
Despite the emergence of young talents such as scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, France have been also-rans in the Six Nations, finishing fourth three times in the last five years. They were third (2017) and fifth (2016) the other two years.
With Brunel and his predecessor Guy Noves tinkering with their halfback combinations, trying out a total of 16 pairings since 2016, Dupont is one of Les Bleus’ rare hopes for the future.
The 22-year-old looks to be a certain starter against Argentina but it is unclear whether Camille Lopez or Romain Ntamack will start at flyhalf.
The French squad is a good mix of seasoned players and youngsters, who will benefit from the experience of Louis Picamoles in his third World Cup.
The number eight might tell tales from the 2011 World Cup, when France were routed 37-17 by New Zealand in the pool phase and scraped into the playoffs before the players rebelled against coach Marc Lievremont and went on to reach the final.
Losing 8-7 to the All Blacks in that final was a major disappointment but achieving something similar in Japan would be quite an achievement for this team.
French federation President Bernard Laporte, however, is confident in their chances.
“Even if there are three or four superior teams, France are able, on one game, to beat anyone,” he said of Les Bleus, who are ranked eighth in the world.
“This team have found enthusiasm and a soul. The preparation has been very good. We could not be heading to Japan with a better mindset.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford