NEWS
10/06/2011 04:55 EDT | Updated 12/05/2011 05:12 EST

England, France each looking to complete tales of redemption in Rugby World Cup quarterfinals

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Matches between France and England are often like wars of attrition, but Saturday's Rugby World Cup quarterfinal seems to be more about finding redemption for both teams.

While France has been lacklustre, tame and meek during the pool stage, England has had a couple of embarrassing off-field dramas for manager Martin Johnson.

England has been apologizing for the behaviour of its players because of incidents in hotels and bars, and France has been saying sorry to its distraught fans ever since woefully losing to Tonga and almost failing to reach the last eight.

With both teams under pressure for different reasons, Saturday's victor will leave Eden Park having done much to mend its reputation.

"It's not easy to say sorry when you've failed, but we've failed," France hooker William Servat said. "I don't think we will (on Saturday)."

France has come out fighting since the 19-14 loss to Tonga prompted a bonding session over a few beers that — contrary to England's raucous social affairs — stayed within the confines of the team hotel and out of the public eye.

"We're frustrated, everyone messed up. But we all want to show something different now," France flanker Julien Bonnaire said. "We've got the right to lose but against a stronger team — not by giving up."

Added France lock Pascal Pape: "They're probably better than us right now but we're stepping into the ring for a big fight."

"Everyone thinks we're going to get hammered. We're in the role of a challenger who's doing all he can to cause a big upset."

England, which beat France in the 2003 and '07 World Cup semifinals, appears to have the edge in past results and current form.

Johnson's men won all four pool games, albeit with great difficulty against Argentina and Scotland, while France was soundly beaten 37-17 by New Zealand before the debacle in Wellington against Tonga.

"We felt ashamed to go off the pitch to jeers from fans who've come to support us here," France coach Marc Lievremont said after that setback. "I still believe in my team and in a team's ability to bounce back and show some pride."

In the wake of that defeat, France's senior players all made the right pledges about a renewed sense of commitment and purpose, and vowed to finally wipe away that pitiful performance by beating England.

"When you keep stirring the muck, you end up getting stuck in it. Let's stop talking about the past and move on," France No. 8 Imanol Harinordoquy said. "This can be the match that makes all the difference for us, for the supporters, for France.

"There'll be a lot of contact, I'm sure about that," he added. "We need to have a strong defence, good discipline and to score points when we get a chance."

The outcome of the match could be settled by a combination of three major factors.

Who will win the scrum battle? Will England flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson finally find form again? Which speedy winger finishes the best: France's Vincent Clerc or England's Chris Ashton?

Clerc has been France's best player so far, scoring five tries to Ashton's six. In the scrum, England is without prop Andrew Sheridan, while prop Nicolas Mas returns for France. Wilkinson has missed 11 of his 20 attempts at goal with both of his opposing kickers, scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili and makeshift flyhalf Morgan Parra, having performed better than him.

"France are going to be like a wounded animal. People expect them not to perform that well but that is when they are at their most dangerous," England fullback Ben Foden said. "It's important we take it to them, really start the game with a bang and score some points in the first 20 minutes and let them know they are in a tough battle."

England is without winger Delon Armitage because of suspension, while backup France centre Fabrice Estebanez is banned for the rest of the competition for a tip-tackle against Tonga. France also has injury concerns over centre Aurelien Rougerie and captain Thierry Dusautoir, who are both in the starting XV despite carrying shoulder injuries.

England, which has conceded only one try to France's nine, has proved it has the stomach for a scrap. Whether France does remains to be seen.

In beating Argentina and Scotland with last-ditch tries from Ashton and Toby Flood, who starts at inside centre instead of Mike Tindall, England has ground out wins when not playing well. France has not.

"It shows good character that we can win those games," Foden said. "Only a few teams have been tested that way in this tournament. That's what knockout rugby is all about.

"In terms of what's at stake and the pressure, it's just increased massively. But I think everyone's just going to revel in it and look forward to the challenge it brings."

England's biggest challenge, it seems, has been to curtail some loutish behaviour.

James Haskell, Dylan Hartley and Ashton were all reprimanded by Johnson and forced to apologize to a female hotel worker in Dunedin for reportedly making lecherous comments toward her last month.

What the players "thought was humour and a lighthearted exchange has clearly not been taken that way," Johnson said, adding that he was "angry with them."

The hotel episode happened a week before Tindall was captured on security footage holding a woman's hand and receiving a kiss on top of his head during a night of revelry in a Queenstown bar.

While England's bonding went way too far, France's squad was torn by tensions between Lievremont and his players, causing the coach to compare the squad with the football team that shamed a nation by going on strike at last year's football World Cup.

"In my knowledge of the French guys and their psyche, if things are not going their way or if things are not going well, they make quite a lot out of it," said England lock Tom Palmer, who plays for French club Stade Francais. "But saying that, we can't read too much into it when we come up against them.

"I think they will raise their game against us, and every time they play us it tends to be a top match."