Brunel's reign on last legs with Wales favored vs France
OITA, Japan (AP) — It's the land of hot springs in this most southwestern of Japan's main islands, 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 long-time 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 ça 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.
Gatland was able to announce his strongest available team Friday, though his selection of flyhalf Dan Biggar has provoked debate given the No. 10 has sustained two concussions this tournament already.
The Welsh maintain Biggar has completed his return-to-play protocols and has been symptom-free ever since coming off after an accidental mid-air collision with teammate Liam Williams against Fiji on Oct. 9. Previously, he had been withdrawn with a head injury during the 29-25 win over Australia.
Nine days, Brunel said after seeing Biggar's name on the Welsh team sheet, wouldn't be a long enough recovery for a French player who had been concussed. The France coach did say his team wouldn't be targeting Biggar during the game but don't be surprised to see some of the team's big men heading down the flyhalf's channel.
Center Jonathan Davies has recovered from a knee injury also sustained against Fiji, while winger George North has shaken off an ankle knock to also start, allowing Gatland to pick the same team that started the game against Australia.
France captain Guilhem Guirado returned to the team after being left out against Tonga and the United States, having started the 23-21 win over Argentina. As a result of the England game being called off, France won't have played for 13 days by the time the third quarterfinal kicks off.
After no European involvement in the 2015 semifinals, the northern hemisphere is guaranteed a team in the World Cup's last four this time around.