By Pirate Irwin, AFP
PARIS — France will hope to get their seemingly endless search to win the rugby World Cup for the first time off to the best possible start with victory over dark horses Argentina here at the Stade de France on Friday.
The hosts have twice been to the final only to end up second best but this time there is a real sense they can give coach Bernard Laporte the perfect send-off before he takes up his duties as sports minister in the French government.
First, though, they have to get out of the eponymous ‘Group of Death’ which also includes Six Nations Triple Crown winners Ireland.
France come into the tournament in great form on the back of three victories in their three warm-up matches – two against titleholders England and one against Wales.
Argentina suffered a 27-20 defeat to Wales before pulling off a 36-8 win against a scratch Belgian international side which included several ex-French players.
However, Argentina, who also kicked off the last World Cup with a defeat to hosts Australia, have been a bogey team for the French in recent times with four wins in their last five clashes.
“We have to forget the past matches,” said Pumas backrow forward Gonzalo Longo.
“This is the World Cup. It could go one way or the other.”
For France’s veteran hooker and captain Raphael Ibanez things are on track but he acknowledges that they are up against a formidable opponent.
“We’re on the right path. I hope that this will serve us well in the match against the Argentinians,” said Ibanez, who also captained France in the 1999 World Cup where they reached the final only to lose to Australia.
Ibanez said his team would be trying to put to one side the razzmatazz surrounding the Cup’s opening ceremony.
“We will stay focused on our goal.”
Ibanez was also keen to highlight the strong points of an Argentina side that has moved to the top table of rugby union.
The Pumas had a “strong maul”, he said.
“They are also great at line-outs and they have some exceptional players in the backline: Agustin Pichot, Felipe Contepomi and Juan Hernandez. It’s a dangerous team.
“We respect them because they are formidable in the physical challenge. They are well bonded because they’re ‘mates’. They live far from their homes. That makes them stronger than if they formed a real community.”
While France enter the match with a fully fit squad it has not been the case for Argentina, who lost two key players including winger Martin Gaitan because of heart trouble.
However, their outstanding scrum-half and captain Agustin Pichot said that had not damaged morale.
“The atmosphere in the squad is positive. We have had a lot of injuries but that’s in the past,” said Pichot, who is about to start his fourth World Cup.
And if the French had any doubts about the motivation of the Pumas then hooker Mario Ledesma will have set them aside.
“We have worked differently. We had two weeks physical preparation in Florida in July. We said we would explode on September 7. I hope we will be proved right.”