Philippe Saint-Andre has just weeks remaining as France rugby coach but he hopes the moment he can say ‘I told you so’ to his many critics is imminent as they embark on their World Cup campaign against Italy on Saturday.
The 48-year-old former France captain believes he can mount a serious challenge to land France their first World Cup and sends his troops into battle at Twickenham against an Italy side deprived of their one world-class player, inspirational captain Sergio Parisse.
Anything but a convincing victory over the Italians will be considered yet another below-par performance and hardly build confidence that they can beat Pool D favourites Six Nations champions Ireland, a side that Saint-Andre has yet to get the better of in four meetings.
Saint-Andre — who will be replaced by Guy Noves after the final whistle has been blown on their tournament — is only without injured star centre Wesley Fofana for the match and has tried to ease the pressure on his players by telling them to go out and enjoy themselves.
“I have lined up my best team at the moment, the most in form,” said Saint-Andre, who comes into the game on the back of a rare pair of successive wins in their warm-up games against England and Scotland.
“We have been preparing for this since July 6 and the players are really champing at the bit to get going.
“I feel that they are in a good place. But what I have told them is it is crucial not to play the game inside their heads before it takes place on Saturday.
“What is important is that the players don’t put too much pressure on themselves.
“That they run out onto the pitch with a smile on their faces. It is a match of rugby with a lot of extras thrown in. More spectators, more pressure, more press… But it remains just a rugby match.”
Saint-Andre has been criticised for not sticking with a regular halfback partnership throughout his reign, but belatedly he appears to have fixed that as he lines up Toulon duo, the mercurial veteran Frederic Michalak and scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde for the third successive match.
Saint-Andre’s woes pale in comparison to those of his compatriot and Italy coach Jacques Brunel, who aside from losing Parisse for the match — he has not yet recovered sufficiently from an operation last week — has been assailed by former Italy player Mirco Bergamasco over losing the dressing-room.
“He has failed to create a group, both on and off the pitch,” said Bergamasco earlier this week.
“He usually only refers to four or five players and forgets the rest. And that’s not enough when there are 31 (players).
“When one of these four or five players is missing, the squad loses belief and collapses,” added Bergamasco, whose brother Mauro tellingly perhaps did not make the matchday squad when Brunel announced the team a day after Mirco’s remarks.
Brunel, who as forwards coach under Bernard Laporte was part of the French set-up that reached successive World Cup semi-finals in 2003 and 2007, pushed all that aside and said his team had the ability to match the best in the world.
“I came to Italy in 2011 with the goal of turning the team into one that could rival the best in the world,” said the 61-year-old.
“It has not happened all the time, it has on some occasions, but not often enough to my liking.
“But the final goal was to reach the World Cup quarter-finals (which would be the first time ever). It is still possible, despite the results of late (they lost all their warm-up games, twice to Scotland and once to Wales), which was not what we wished for.”
Scott Spedding; Yoann Huget, Mathieu Bastareaud, Alexandre Dumoulin, Noa Nakaitaci; Frederic Michalak, Sebastien Tillous-Borde; Louis Picamoles, Damien Chouly, Thierry Dusautoir (capt); Pascal Pape, Yoann Maestri; Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado, Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: Benjamin Kayser, Vincent Debaty, Nicolas Mas, Bernard Le Roux, Alexandre Flanquart, Morgan Parra, Remi Tales, Gael Fickou
Luke McLean; Leonardo Sarto, Michele Campagnaro, Andrea Masi, Giovanbattista Venditti; Tommaso Allan, Edoardo Gori; Samuela Vunisa, Francesco Minto, Alessandro Zanni; Josh Furno, Quintin Geldenhuys; Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini (capt), Matias Aguero.
Replacements: Andrea Manici, Michele Rizzo, Lorenzo Cittadini, Valerio Bernabo, Simone Favaro, Guglielmo Palazzani, Carlo Canna, Enrico Bacchin