Wounded French still a potent force
Saint-André had been citing the excesses of the Top 14 before the tournament began, and this may have contributed to a loss of form by Machenaud, Michalak and others. The latter had been the star of the autumnal campaign at outhalf, despite playing all of the season at scrum-half with Toulon, and Saint-André had also bemoaned how French clubs trawl the world for outhalves such as Jonny Wilkinson, Juan Martín Hernández, James Hook, Brock James, Luke McAllister, Paul Warwick and many more, with Jonathan Sexton and Morne Steyn set to join Racing Métro and Stade Francais next season.
Fewer than half the registered fly-halves in the Top 14 are French, 19 out of 39, and many of them are third choice.
Yet in all of this Saint-André is something of a poacher turned gamekeeper, as highlighted by his successor at Toulon, Bernard Laporte.
“He’s claiming that he is looking for players with a good kicking game and ironically he is looking for players with the same profile as Wilkinson, McAlister and Sexton.”
“We didn’t hear any such complaints in November when all was going smoothly. He was telling everybody that Michalak was the best. Now he’s saying that he needs to find an out-half. What state of mind does this leave Michalak in? It must be remembered that Philippe signed 17 foreigners when he was the coach at Toulon. Now he says there are too many foreigners in the Top 14. He is only interested in his own back. He is not interested in the general state of rugby.”
Increasingly, more observers such as the highly respected Henri Bru in L’Equipe, believes the current debate is masking a much more deep-rooted problem, and specifically the once -famed production line of indigenous talent from the south.
“For me, this is actually the main problem. Last week, the French under-20s went down 40-10 to England,” he points out. France has almost 1,800 clubs and 390,000 players, but Bru argues: “We have a lot of young players, but I would call that social rugby. The clubs are not detecting the best players and putting them on hard work to reach the highest levels.”
“It’s also so easy to make money in France playing rugby and there is less incentive to go to the Top 14. The ProD12 (the French second division) is fully professional, and in Fédérale 1 (their third division) if you are a good player you can make €2,000/€2,500 per month, plus work with the city council or something like this. You train twice a week and it’s okay, you can meet your friends on Saturday night.”
So what’s happened to the clubs’ production line?
“Firstly, you have to look at the demographics of France,” says Bru. “Where rugby is traditionally strong, in the south, is not the place where you have the most young people in France. They are mostly in the big towns, and if you want to play rugby in Paris you will have difficulty in finding a club which is not at least an hour away by train. It’s not only in France, but we also lose a lot of players between 18 and 21.”