Wounded French still a potent force
Mathieu Bastareaud, Jocelino Suta, Dimitri Szarzewski and Yannick Nyanga line up prior to the start of the Six Nations clash against England at Twickenham
France's coach Philippe Saint-Andre
French players show their dejection following the defeat to Italy
The strength of the Top 14 masks major shifts within the French game, writes GERRY THORNLEY,Rugby Correspondent
The whiff of desperation in the air come 5pm at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday will be potent. France arrive with a coach under fire, with issues over the outhalf, with a difficulty in seeing out 80 minutes and confidence scarred by three opening defeats as they seek to avoid a whitewash for the first time since 1957.
Along with the threatened ignominy of a first wooden spoon since 1999 (albeit as a prelude to reaching the World Cup final later that year) that should concentrate French minds. Arguably, they’ll be as dangerous as if on course for a Grand Slam.
That had seemed a more likely scenario at the outset of the tournament. Philippe Saint-André had afforded the flawed World Cup final heroes one more hurrah in last season’s Six Nations, but after finishing fourth, rebuilt the side with an impressive second Test win in Argentina followed by autumnal wins over Australia, Argentina and Samoa in November.
Pretty much the same team kicked off the tournament in Rome four weeks ago, whereupon it took barely two minutes before things began to unravel. From a Leonardo Ghiraldini throw-in, Italy went through 13 phases before turning over the ball, then counter-attacked off a Frédéric Michalak kick before Luciano Orquera released Sergio Parisse to gallop over untouched. The ball had been in play for a lung-bursting 126 seconds, and most of the French team looked like they were treading on quicksand.
Similarly in the third quarter, another energy-sapping passage of play lasting two minutes and 40 seconds was soon followed by one of 82 seconds, as Italy went through seven phases before Orquera’s offload put Martin Castrogiovanni over.
Save for Clermont, and to a degree Montpellier, few Top 14 arm-wrestles feature multi-phase rugby, though no such excuse could be offered for the dismal 16-6 loss at home to Wales in an error-strewn affair.
However, France lost unluckily in Twickenham last Saturday after Saint-André made seven changes in personnel and one key positional switch. Wesley Fofana reverted to the centre from the wing and his wondrous solo try last Saturday only highlighted the original selection error.
With Morgan Parra reunited alongside Francois Trinh-Duc at half-back, and the fit-again Thomas Domingo restored to the front-row, France were a different team. Their scrum was potent again, imbuing the team with belief. Parra gave their running game a higher tempo and more variety, Trinh-Duc stood up physically, they launched Mathieu Bastareaud up the middle and then Louis Picamoles, the most potent, offloading ball carrier in the tournament, while in defence they pushed up hard and flooded the breakdown.
Come the Irish game and with Maxime Medard also restored to an all-Toulouse back three, conceivably none of their backline will start as they did that opening game, and only four of the pack will be wearing the same numbers.
There remains goodwill for Saint-André but the coach is also coming under increasing fire. After those initial selection mistakes, his decision to hastily replace Domingo, Parra and Trinh-Duc at Twickenham has been widely derided. Even Stuart Lancaster said of the introduction of Michalak for Trinh-Duc in the 53rd minute: “I thought it played into our hands. Our defence just got stronger.”