Wounded French still a potent force


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.

More variety

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.”

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.

A poacher

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.”

Doing well

But while Bru agrees that the Top 14 is part of the problem “it is also part of the strength of French rugby, because French rugby is not so dependent on the results of the French team. It’s like the English Premier League (in football). Even if the English team is not doing well in the World Cup they still have the Premier League . . .”

Back in 2006, on home soil, France won the Under-21 World Championship, but since winning the 2009 Under-20 Six Nations, they have finished fourth, second, second and currently lie fifth, having only beaten Italy. Since the IRB introduced the Junior (Under-20) World Championship, France have finished sixth, fifth, fifth, fourth and last year sixth, below Ireland.

Nigel Osborne is a coach with CBC Monkstown and Seapoint’s AIL team, and as well as being a consultant with Stade Francais, runs the rugbyandfrench rugby camp every summer in Soustons in southwest France, where his Irish players often encounter French under-age squads,” he said.

“Because of the culture of the schools cups and the success of Leinster and Munster rugby has become hugely popular, and in fairness to the branches the skills development in schools and fitness culture is very good. The game has evolved and become more multi-skilled, and fitness has changed. So when I see the Irish kids play the French kids, the Irish are more functionally fit. . .”

“The French don’t do rugby in schools, they do it in the clubs, and with the 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, there isn’t this peer pressure to eat correctly and to train hard. And it is very hard to change kids at 18/19/20, if they haven’t been educated from 13 onwards.”

“Even at the Top 14 level, there is an obsession with size, but they are not always functionally fit. When Michael Cheika first went to Stade one of his first tasks was finding somewhere where the players could eat more healthily at lunchtime.”

Stade Francais are also not alone in beginning to talent spot young players in South Africa. Clermont have twinned their academy with one in Fiji, while French clubs recruit from the under-20 World Cup.

“What we could see in the very near future,” says Bru, “is a guy like Virimi Vakatawa, who is at Racing Metro. He came (from Fiji) when he was 19 and now he has three-year residency, and . . . he wants first to try to play for France, because the money is there, of course.”

The new uncapped addition to the squad, Perpignan lock Sébastien Vahaamahina, was born in French Polynesia and was spotted when he came to France for an under-17 tournament. Fofana is of Malian descent. Yannick Nyanga was born in Kinshasa, Zaire. Fulgence Ouedraogo was born in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Mathieu Bastareaud was born to parents from Guadeloupe.

This trend will become more commonplace says Bru. “Yes, because you need people who want to earn money and who are willing to have pain to earn money. You will have less and less the sons of doctors in French rugby teams.”

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