France has modest expectations heading into U.S match at RWC

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              United States players pack bind for a scrum during the Rugby World Cup Pool C game at Kobe Misaki Stadium against England in Kobe, Japan, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
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FUKUOKA, Japan (AP) — France is not about to start talking up its Rugby World Cup chances just because it beat Argentina, and the players are in a modest frame of mind heading into the match against the United States on Wednesday.

Victory in Fukuoka will keep France on track for one of the top two spots in Pool C, but the Tricolors have been so inconsistent in recent years that confidence remains fragile.

“We’re not one to say that, against such and such a team, we’re going to take an attacking bonus point,” flyhalf Camille Lopez said.

His dropped goal sealed a dramatic 23-21 win against 2015 semifinalist Argentina in a game many commentators tipped France to lose. In that match, France showed glimpses of its old flair to lead 20-3 at halftime, but then a familiar pattern unfolded as nerves took over.

“We finished the match giving 14 fouls away and, by miracle, we won,” Lopez said. “Normally you lose when you make so many mistakes. It went our way; good for us.”

Lopez is one of 12 changes to the French starting lineup to take on a U.S. team which lost its opening game to England 45-7.

While France traditionally favors a running style of rugby, and should feel fairly confident of scoring tries against the U.S., Lopez sees the match as an essential opportunity to develop a kicking game France has neglected in the past.

Tactical kicking “is becoming more and more important. The English did it to us during the (Six Nations) tournament. It’s their bread and butter,” said Lopez, who wins his 26th test cap. “I’m convinced you need to able to do everything well, and a kicking game is an important weapon to have.”

Even though France has swapped out its entire pack, the U.S. forwards are the ones under more pressure to perform. U.S. defensive coach Jacque Fourie was dismayed at times by the poor tackling and lack of communication against England.

“There’s a big beast lying ahead of us and that’s France. We need to mentally and physically be ready for that challenge. I don’t think we can get any worse,” said Fourie, a versatile back who played 74 tests for South Africa and won the 2007 World Cup.

“We need to rock up and we need to make our tackles. If you don’t make your tackles, you’re going to end up behind the advantage line every time,” he added. “We need to stop their lineout mauls, because they’re going to lick their lips from what they saw against England.”

France coach Jacques Brunel certainly liked what he saw.

“You have to highlight the English performance,” Brunel said. “We are worried about this American team’s athletic abilities, yet they were nevertheless dominated by England and we hope to do the same.”

France’s backs have looked better since Fabien Galthie — a former standout scrumhalf — joined Brunel’s staff.

Fitness levels and creativity have both improved in the four matches Galthie has been involved in.

“Of course he has a connoisseur’s eye,” said scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud, who is starting the game. “He knows the position well and that can help us.”

For observers watching the Argentina match, the animated Galthie appeared to be the one in charge and making calls from the bench.

“They’ve certainly, over the last two months or so since he’s been there, changed their style of play a little bit,” said U.S. coach Gary Gold, who made five changes to the starting XV. “We’re going to have our work cut out.”

With nearly one week between the games, Gold encouraged his players to take time away from the competition and liven up their minds.

“Japan is just an amazing country,” Gold said. “If they want to go down to the beach or hop on a train and go and see something of Japan, they should get away from rugby. Go and have a laugh and a few coffees.”

There were doubts the game at Hakatanomori Stadium would go ahead because of nearby Typhoon Mitag.

But World Rugby gave the green light on Monday, after weather information experts said the typhoon is lessening in strength and moving westward away from Japan’s coastline.

France’s players will wear black armbands in memory of former French President Jacques Chirac, who led France from 1995 to 2007 and died last Thursday at the age of 86. A minute’s silence will be held before the game.