France a big underdog vs. Wales


It’s the land of hot springs in Kyushu, so Jacques Brunel used some downtime before the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals to sample some of Oita’s soothing and relaxing waters.

Well, he tried.

A torrential downpour forced the France coach to abort his trip soon after getting off the train in Beppu, one of the region’s most famous hot spring resorts.

Unless his team pulls off a surprise win over Wales, Brunel’s underwhelming tenure in charge of Les Tricolores won’t reach his preferred destination, either.

France is the underdog heading into Sunday’s all-European matchup. And for good reason, having lost seven of its last eight meetings with Wales, which recently climbed atop rugby’s world rankings for the first time.

Wales has never been so strong under longtime coach Warren Gatland, winning 14 matches straight — a national record — from March 2018 to March 2019 and sweeping a World Cup pool containing two-time champion Australia.

France, meanwhile, displayed typical inconsistency in advancing to the knockout stage, edging Argentina and then stumbling past Tonga before the pool finale against England was canceled because of Typhoon Hagibis. Speculation swirls that Brunel hasn’t got a handle on his players, that the French might not be too far from mutiny.

As the French say, plus ca change.

Brunel is departing after the World Cup, to be replaced by Fabien Galthie — a man he brought in as assistant in April after France’s latest disappointing Six Nations campaign.

Will the 65-year-old Brunel go without even a whimper?

“Wales’ confidence is higher than ours, that’s obvious,” Brunel said Friday, in comments that would hardly be described as a pre-game rallying cry. “Their ranking is much better. They’ve been consistent for a few seasons. That’s undeniable.

“They’re the favorites. We’re in the role of the underdog. That’s logical, normal, but it doesn’t stop us believing in our chances.”

Gatland will not be underestimating the French. As a New Zealander, he will know full well how dangerous they can be, with France’s World Cup wins over the All Blacks in 1999 (in the semifinals) and 2007 (in the quarterfinals) part of the tournament’s lore.

Indeed, France has reached the semifinals in six of the World Cup’s eight editions, going on to make the final on three occasions — once, in 2011, at the expense of Wales.

“They are a big team, a physical team,” Gatland said. “We’ve had a great record against them, we’ve won seven of the last eight games and the one we lost was the 100-minute game in Paris where they scored in the last minute.

“The message to the players is you’ve got two choices here: we are either on the plane on Monday going home, or we are here until the end of the tournament.”

Gatland, like Brunel, is leaving his post after the tournament, returning home to Hamilton to coach the Chiefs in Super Rugby. How he’d love to go back as a World Cup-winning coach, ticking off the last box in a bulging resume that already includes four Six Nations titles with the Welsh — including three Grand Slams — and success as head coach of the British and Irish Lions through a series win in Australia in 2013 followed by a drawn series against the All Blacks in 2017.

Losing to France would be a disappointing end to his 12-year reign. It’s highly unlikely on current form.