Staying in a hotel overlooking the numerous, bustling platforms of Gare de l’Est it is natural to think of Zola. The novelist Émile, rather than the former Chelsea player and Watford manager, Gianfranco.
The Frenchman’s books are full of brutish, freakishly strong men who regularly commit terrifying acts of violence; appropriate enough with the Rugby World Cup’s quarter-finals weekend looming.
While sensationalist and lurid, Zola’s work is philosophical too. Is human experience the result of free will or in some way predetermined? Are we like speeding trains, hurtling towards pre-ordained destinations, or is the course of a life more akin to a scooter zipping unpredictably along Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis?
If France’s destiny is to win the World Cup, the universe has placed a significant obstacle in their way. Sunday’s meeting between the world-champion Springboks and the host nation has the feel of a final – unstoppable force and immovable object – or two locomotives on collision course.
Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby, attempted to alter the direction of the buildup when he gave a typically entertaining – not to mention calculating – media briefing on Tuesday.
The 50-year-old covered everything from the threat of Parisian bedbugs to Fabien Galthié’s barefoot touch rugby sessions when the Frenchman visited Limerick during Erasmus’s time with Munster.
Erasmus is a fiercely intelligent coach and a brilliant tactician who masterminded the Springboks’ triumph in Japan four years ago. He is a strategic, big-picture sort of person who has, nevertheless, often been unable to resist the urge to publicly castigate referees when results have not gone South Africa’s way.
While he is a consistently cheerful and engaging character, the fallout from some of his criticism directed towards officials has been no laughing matter in the past few years. His comments have had serious consequences for those concerned, including online death threats.
Peace has now broken out between South Africa and match officials, Erasmus announced this week, issuing a mea culpa for past behaviour, including the infamous British & Irish Lions video in 2021 in which he critiqued the match officials. “We don’t want people not to like us,” he said.
Still he could not resist his own J’Accuse…!, although it was (mostly) Sunday’s opponents rather than referees in his sights. Erasmus opined that France are “very clever” in exaggerating high tackles by opponents and winning penalties.
It was a classic attempt to seize control of the pre-match narrative as well as a message sent to Sunday’s referee, Ben O’Keeffe. Not to mention an attempt to disrupt Les Bleus in their preparation.
The obvious problem for Erasmus though, as he touched on himself, is that Galthié’s team seem to have become unflappable in a distinctly un-Gallic way.
“The French were always very good at things but they’d be up and down, and up and down,” Erasmus said, speaking in the media centre at Roland Garros, and looking to send an ace in Galthié’s direction with his subsequent accusation of their “simulation”. “Now I think they are very steady in their emotions, and their emotions control their body language.”
Of Antoine Dupont, the scrum-half and captain who is set to return at the Stade de France soon after a broken cheekbone, Erasmus said: “He’s so emotionless when he plays, and he always looks so in control.” He also quipped that three broken jaws during his own playing career had helped him to slim down. “Fitness won’t be a problem,” he said of Dupont’s comeback.
Ironically perhaps it is Galthié, if anyone, who has perpetuated stereotypes of the French character. “The problem for us, the French, the Latins, is that we relax a little and play less accurately,” said the France head coach of the manner in which they brushed Italy aside 60-7 in Lyon last Friday, scoring three converted tries and a penalty within 24 minutes.
There is certainly nothing wrong with France’s attack, and Erasmus added that breaking down their Shaun Edwards-marshalled defence – and their all-round improvement under Galthié – makes the quarter-final one of the biggest challenges of his career. “We’re up against it,” Erasmus said, attempting to frame France as clear favourites.
Regardless both teams, as Gianfranco might observe, are in a good moment. On Sunday night the subtext – in fact, part of the text itself – will be Erasmus and his pre-match sparring. Zola the novelist came down on the side of determinism, but it is the players on the pitch who will ultimately decide their own fate.