France’s future not so grim and their Reaper should know
Legendary flanker Serge Betsen sees signs of hope despite losses and discipline issues
Serge Betsen, who was called the Grim Reaper in his rugby days, says the French controversy in Scotland is a “learning curve” for Jacques Brunel. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
After their match in Edinburgh France coach Jacques Brunel realised how much ground his team had lost to the pick of the Six Nations Championship sides.
Following a night out involving drink, police and the early hours, Anthony Belleau, Jonathan Danty, Arthur Iturria, Remi Lamerat, Felix Lambey, Alexandre Lapandry, Sekou Macalou, Louis Picamoles and two-try Teddy Thomas were all dropped from the squad to face Italy.
Would an Irish coach dare to eviscerate a struggling team like that over a night out issue? Probably not but it gives a sense of what mindset Brunel comes from and what support he has in president Bernard Laporte.
Brunel’s second Six Nations match and forced to discipline nine players makes for a sorry summing up of where French heads are currently placed. Serge Betsen, the Cameroon born French flanker they used to call “la Faucheuse” (the Grim Reaper) and who accumulated over 200 stitches in his head in a contact-laden career may have had nights out himself.
But his was a Grand Slam-winning French team, not one suffering transition trauma. Now the 43 year-old speaks of values and respect.
“You need to deal with that type of thing. It is not a pretty one for the French team,” he says. “But again it is a learning curve for Jacques Brunel. He’s starting a great philosophy of play and spirit for the players.
“He listens to what they want and in return he needs to get the attitude and behaviour. I have to say inside the squad and outside the squad it is not good publicity for the French. You are wearing the French jersey. You need to understand that.
“You have to celebrate when it matters,” he adds, remembering a Heineken Cup match with Biarritz which they won but he was whisked off on a tour to Australia missing celebrations.
“It’s true that the players didn’t really get to understand that. When you wear a French jersey you need to show a lot of respect and discipline. That is the core value.”
The team are on the naughty step now. But Betson believes he sees something in their performances that can nurture optimism. But for a kick against Ireland they would have won in Paris and but for a flawless six penalties and two conversions from Greig Laidlaw the defeat to Scotland might have been closer than six points or even turned around.
“France were unlucky with the first two games,” he says. “What I can say? They kept fighting hard to keep the same values as I do. I have to say it is a difficult edition of the French team this year.
“It is a frustrating moment for them. What is missing is time, time to give the players a platform, to enjoy themselves and to deliver their best performances. It is not just about the result of the day it’s about what we give the players to deliver the best rugby possible.”
Betson was always a player to command respect. It was during the 2002 Championship when he relentlessly targeted outhalf Jonny Wilkinson so much so that Clive Woodward replaced him. Woodward’s respect was evident afterwards.
“He is the only player that I can say was the single-handed reason we lost a match,” said the England coach.
Betson believes Ireland can win the Grand Slam and he understands the significance of the final game in Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day. He is clear that what happened in Edinburgh should not have but he’s a believer in Brunel and he’s not as pessimistic as some might be. The difference between his Grand Slam team and this one is not as wide as people see it.
“The gap is not that huge,” he says. “Last year they finished in the top three of the Six Nations. For me that is the best platform since 2010-11.
“In the Irish team you can see that every player is fit and ready to play, which is not the case for the French at the moment. But we are getting there.”
So the future is not so grim. And the Reaper should know.