How the times can change; the humble Australian Outback teams of years past versus a European side such as the French would have most likely had you thinking of a lopsided result in favour of the latter.
Things are different now, and as of right now in this IFAF World Championship, there is a genuine belief amongst the players and staff that Australia can defeat France. Not a misguided or optimistic belief, but a genuine one.
Following Australia’s opening round mauling of South Korea, and the awareness of knowing that this is one of the best teams that the Outback has ever fielded, it’s perfectly justified. They not only surprised the South Koreans with quickness and physicality that they themselves admitted to not expecting, but they made the media around the tournament sit up and pay attention.
With eyes everywhere on the Outback, they receive France’s challenge at the perfect time; whilst there’s a growing support for the team, it’s still widely considered France’s game to lose. The confidence installed from their previous performance combined with little expectation could be the final stick of dynamite this team needs to get themselves over the line mentally.
Quarterback coach Ross Smith isn’t prepared to leap to the same conclusions, but knows how much their winning performance could mean going forward.
“I think we got a lot of confidence from it. The energy in the locker room after the game and on the field was amazing and inspiring.” Smith said.
“Having said that though, I wouldn’t say we’re getting ahead of ourselves in any way because we know that France are going to be a very different proposition. However, we know that if we play to the best of our abilities, we’re in with a strong shot.”
France’s 31-6 victory over Brazil was a mixed bag for takeaways; inside the first 14 minutes of the game they had put 24 points on the board with their first four drives, and looked at ease amongst the tournament’s new kids on the block. They were matching expectations and being clinical; a class above in terms of athleticism and execution. It wasn’t a stretch to say that they could have gone on to make it a 60-point game.
But then they stopped. Penalties suddenly flooded into the match, and their early momentum was halted on the back of their own complacency and mental approach to the rest of the game.
In the second half, they managed only one touchdown thanks to a terrific 53-yard run from Stephen Yepmo in the dying minutes of the final quarter. They didn’t convert a single third down in two quarters, and ended up with a staggering 257 yards of penalties against their name.
Inversely, Brazil managed to convert 44% on third downs in the second half and even scored a touchdown themselves, even after they gained -5 yards from the first three drives of the game. Regardless of the reason behind it, France switched off.
Australia now has the incentive to keep attacking and follow the stereotype of the Australian fighting spirit that Head Coach John Leijten has been widely publicising. If they need even more incentive after that however, they can look to their head coach again for deeper motivation.
French stars Sebastian Sejean and Game 1 MVP Guillaime Rioux both play under Leijten, and defensive line/special teams coach Steve Sheppard, at the Dresden Monarchs in Germany. The relationship between these four is definitely friendly when the GFL is their primary concern, but in regards to international football, both coaches freely admit that they want nothing more than to beat their French counterparts.
Furthermore, France Head Coach Patrick Esume and Leijten have coached with and against each other in their respective times in NFL Europe. Affiliations aside, these two would desperate for a win against each other.
So with all of that in mind, how does Australia beat France?
“Assignments are always critical. We have to play a physical type of play; to really come down with the running game, because we have four good running backs we can rotate through and use. Defensively we’ve got to be aware of the team speed they have on offence but also to fly to the ball when there’s a clear direction.” Leijten said.
Offensive coordinator Paul Manera highlighted the team’s ability to stay focused on the task at hand as one of the main paths to success.
“The key for us is our ability to settle down and play football, and not to get distracted in the moment. Play fast, with confidence, with intensity. Just stay focussed.” Manera said.
Australia versus France kicks off at 3:30pm local time (5:30am Monday July 13 AEST).
Written by Chris Guscott – @Chris_Guscott