Pool C quarter-final qualification was decided last weekend but, with reports of another Rugby World Cup mutiny in the French camp, it’s easy to forget there’s still one key match to play, assuming it does not fall victim to Typhoon Hagibis.
England are due to meet France in Yokohama City on Saturday morning. The winners will face Pool D runners-up, probably Australia, in the quarter-finals. The losers meet the winners of Pool D, likely to be Wales.
While England media speculation focuses on whether they should throw Saturday’s game for an ‘easier’ knockout-phase route, France have been hit by reports of a rift between staff and players, notably captain Guilhem Guirado.
It spiralled after a Midi Olympique article claimed relations between staff and Guirado, which it said had become strained over the summer, had fallen apart completely in Japan.
Guirado was reportedly unhappy at being kept out of the loop on player selection — he apparently learned of the scale of third-choice hooker Peato Mauvaka’s injury and his replacement’s identity via FFR social media.
He also discovered Antoine Dupont, sore back and all, was on the bench for the Tonga game only when the full match-day squad was released to the media.
Ignore the viral video intervention of Toulon boss Mourad Boudjellal in all this. For all its rabble-rousing invective and seductive sedition, it was an off-Broadway sideshow in the scheme of French rugby things. But, he was right about one thing: there is no doubt Les Bleus are good — or at least consistent — at mutiny. This is an updated rerun of the playbook from the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.
In 2011, it got them to the final — where it took the combined might of the All Blacks to beat Thierry Dusautoir, who was pretty much one-man-showing it for France at the time. Four years later, a second rumoured player revolt ended as quickly as it had started with a quarter-final pasting from the same opponents.
This time, however, things are different. In 2011 and 2015, coaches were coming to the end of troubled tenures. In 2019, Brunel is in the role of dying-swan coach, but his successor — Fabien Galthie — is already in Japan and directly involved in squad matters.
And it seems there’s no place for captain Guirado — who is retiring from international rugby after the World Cup — in his thinking.
If Mid Oly is correct, Galthie has convinced the coaching staff that Camille Chat is better in the scrum, stronger in the loose, more solid in defence.
Despite his lineout shortcomings, they have quickly come to believe the Racing hooker is the essential cog in the pack machine.
No one is bigger than the team — not even Guirado, who has been the closest thing to a rock for French rugby to cling on to for some time. But dropping the captain mid-tournament is a massive risk. Guirado may not have Galthie’s ear, but he remains hugely popular with his teammates.
He is their “captain, my captain”. And they have been quick to rally round.
Jefferson Poirot, who seems to have been anointed as the next wearer of the armband, has long been telling anyone who will care to listen that, “Guilhem remains the captain of the XV de France”.
Gregory Alldritt was blunt at a press conference yesterday: “The captain is Guirado,” was his curt response to reporters’ questions.
The media-friendly Gaël Fickou was more forthcoming:
“We’re all behind him.”
Maxime Médard added: “Guilhem is the captain. When he’s not on the field, it’s Jeff (Poirot) or Louis (Picamoles). There are no discussions in the group about that”.
Galthie and the French coaching staff may be right. Chat may be the form hooker in the squad, and no captain is above the team.
But this in-tournament melodrama has been another avoidable PR nightmare for the French World Cup team — after the farce over injured prop Demba Bamba’s replacement, when they first called up Uini Atonio, only to discover he was injured and were forced to look to Cedate Gomes Sa — and one they could really do without. The question remains: are France about to retire captain Guirado early?
Expect the answer to start becoming clearer when the squads for the England game and then the quarter-final are announced.