Rugby | Analysis

Time is right for France team to emulate Les Bleus with WC triumph

Winning the World Cup for the first time in October would finally elevate France’s rugby team alongside the more illustrious Les Bleus in terms of nationwide standing.

It’s an old debate in France: Which is really the national sport, soccer or rugby?

The soccer team is more successful in the international arena after winning two World Cups, two European Championships and reaching three other major finals.

But while soccer fans quickly fall out of love with their national team, rugby supporters have tended to remain loyal and the atmosphere more passionate at Stade de France.

The rugby crowd is as quick to cheer France as it is to drown the stadium in whistles if things start going badly. There was a lot of whistling in the previous decade but the passionate support endured and was rewarded last year with a 10th Grand Slam in Six Nations history and the world No. 1 ranking.

Playing a World Cup on home soil will give France, three times a runner-up at rugby’s premier event, a massive boost.

And Les Tricolores have the people’s support. Thousands of fans remained at their seats at Stade de France on Sunday, long after France won its last World Cup warmup against Australia, to applaud captain Antoine Dupont and his team as they did a lap of honor under a haze of red, white and blue smoke.

“The enthusiasm people have for us has been talked about. We will have to grasp it,” Dupont said. “We’ve got loyal fans, people want to get behind us. We have to take this positive energy and leave the rest aside. I hope their passion pushes us on.”

Host teams tend to do well at the Rugby World Cup. This is the third edition where France will host games, but the first for an entire tournament.

France has always reached at least the quarterfinals, getting within one win of the title in 1987, ‘99 and 2011, all far from home. But expectations for the upcoming tournament are at their highest ever thanks to an exciting and innovative four-year buildup under coach Fabien Galthié.

“In terms of the French public and the excitement that’s building, we know there’s a 90% approval rating for the hosting of the tournament,” World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin said. “We’re anticipating a very special celebration of both rugby and of France.”

Soccer’s star players are more well known in France than their counterparts in rugby, which maintains more of a link with its traditional past. Perhaps things are changing. France’s players had their names on their jerseys for the first time this month — something their soccer counterparts have been doing for many years.

France opens the tournament with a huge test against three-time champion New Zealand at Stade de France on Sept. 8. The pool match has been hyped since the draw in December 2020.

France is led by Dupont, the 2021 world player of the year and three-time Six Nations MVP. It is a far superior side than the one which last hosted in 2007, although losing star flyhalf Romain Ntamack to injury is a significant setback.

The Dupont-Ntamack combination started in the 2019 Six Nations and was established by the time of the 2019 World Cup. JEROME PUGMIRE, PARIS, MDT/AP

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