Gordon D’Arcy: Watching France in 1991 was transformative. Now it’s painful
France are a sorry sight in this Six Nations, but they were once the beating heart of rugby
France’s Guilhem Guirado and Dany Priso react on the bench as their Six Nations game enters its final minutes at Twickenham last Sunday, England winning 44-8. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
Remember France at Twickenham in 1991. They made an 11-year-old Wexford boy temporarily discard his hurley and sliotar. Transformed us into Serge Blanco. Non, Jean-Baptise Lafond. Non, Philippe Sella!
Go back and watch the prince of centres waltz from his 22 after Pierre Berbizier caught Simon Hodgkinson’s miscued penalty in the dead ball area. As white shirts closed around the great scrumhalf, the camera switched to Hodgkinson retreating.
The crowd’s roar made the English fullback stall and turn.
The French were at play – Berbizier flung it to Blanco. To Lafond. To Sella, and, faced by a scattering of English forwards, he flipped a pass to Didier Camberabero; a splash of blue on green canvas as we wandered over halfway . . .
Over the next 20 years this marvellous moment was replicated and repeated in back gardens and playgrounds. The imagination is empty now, the French silent, irreverent to their glorious past.
They have forgotten who they once were, what the yellow cock on red crest represents.
It should be remembered that England captured the Grand Slam in ’91, as well they might in 2019 (Wales in Cardiff being the main hurdle), but that French team, heroic figures who inspired a generation of players from Auckland to Clongowes Wood, left an indelible mark on my generation.
Remember Jean-Luc Sadourney’s “Try from the end of the world” at Eden Park in ’94 and the curse they held over New Zealand until the final whistle at that same ground in 2011.
Now look at them. Last Sunday a disinterested winger (Damian Penaud) and fullback (Yoann Huget) jogged after Jonny May. It must have felt like a dagger in the hearts of Blanco and Philippe Saint-André.
“How the hell were Wales 16-0 down against this French team!?” tweeted Martyn Williams as the floodgates opened.
Williams, my Lions touring teammate in 2005 and 2009, one of the game’s natural opensides, also praised England’s young version of a Seán O’Brien: “Tom Curry, 20 years old . . . looks some player.”
He’s not wrong there. I thought they’d miss Sam Underhill, but Curry has made the seven jersey his own. He’s very like Seánie, and may tangle with him next season (or sooner, if all goes according to plan for Eddie and Joe).
England are rolling along now, but where to start with France?
They kick to get rid of the ball. What a sorry sight that is. You’d swear they don’t want it.
I struggle to see any positive influence from Jacques Brunel on this performance or the second-half capitulation against Wales.
Ten changes from one week to the next reeks of a group without any real guidance. If the coach appears clueless, what chance do recent captains Mathieu Bastareaud and Sébastien Vahaamahina have?
Vahaamahina revealed after Wales that the referee had to inform him of his duties when Guilhem Guirado left the pitch. That would be laughable at under-12s. In a Six Nations game it’s far from funny.
Such disarray beggars belief.
Now, we have grown accustomed to boxes we didn’t even know existed being ticked under Joe Schmidt’s all-consuming influence. This is the other end of the spectrum.
I remember the 2008 Six Nations. Eddie O’Sullivan’s last campaign in charge. For numerous reasons – not all Eddie’s fault – we had not recovered from the World Cup meltdown, with most players reverting to provincial habits.
The team was largely made up of Leinster and Munster players, so at least there were just two slightly different approaches.
The French players are gathered from 14 clubs and we know from Irish, Aussie and Kiwi coaches who have spent time over there that streamlining towards the international squad is all but non-existent. Every club has its way of preparing. Considering how Racing 92 recently went in Belfast and Toulouse at the RDS, the old French issue with motivating themselves on the road still exists.
France still have more individual brilliance than Ireland, Wales and England, but it keeps getting lost in their system.
The art of coaching is all about finding a common language so players are left in no doubt what their individual job entails – sharing struggles and the glory together.
If Brunel remains the centrepiece of this French team, I struggle to see how they will avoid sinking further down the world rankings
Look at Schmidt’s attack plan for the Jacob Stockdale try. Down to the minutiae, everyone knew what they were at, from Seánie tugging Scottish tighthead Simon Berghan’s jersey to loosehead Allan Dell having to run around Tadhg Furlong’s circumference as Bundee Aki and Quinn Roux kept three midfield defenders honest. As usual Sexton acted as juicy bait so Stockdale could storm through a tiny gap between the props, essentially created by O’Brien and Furlong.
Everyone understands their role.
Presumably, Bernard Laporte has a masterplan, with winning the World Cup at Stade de France in 2023 the ultimate goal. In between, he will continue to war with the clubs for access while reducing the number of foreigners.
If Brunel remains the centrepiece of this French team, I struggle to see how they will avoid sinking further down the world rankings.
Laporte did hatch a short-term plan by appointing Julien Bonnaire and Jean-Baptiste Élissalde as young and presumably innovative assistants to balance out Brunel’s traditional coaching techniques.
Mon dieu. It ain’t working.
France, for all their talent, are running a winger, Huget, at fullback and a centre, Gaël Fickou, on the left wing.
When I was 15 Vinnie Murray switched me from outhalf to fullback. Lesson one in my re-education was to imagine the back three as a single piece of string. If the left winger shoots up, the fullback is automatically yanked cross-field with the right wing covering in behind. It requires work rate, ideally leading to synchronicity, delivered via the thankless task of covering space. Nobody watching the play will notice if you do your job, but slack even for a few seconds and a heads-up attacker will punch the ball in behind for the easiest of tries.
After a few weeks, with the most basic level of coaching, I was in sync with the wingers.
Rob Kearney takes the role to another level. All those early years patrolling the back field for Clongowes and Leinster, learning off Girvan Dempsey, meant he looked every inch a world-class fullback when still only 23 on the 2009 Lions tour of South Africa.
Ten years later, his importance was there for all to see in Murrayfield.
The shrewd fullback plays cat and mouse. He shows space to outhalves, invites the kick into perceived space that will be filled before the ball lands.
France were neither cat nor mouse – they were the lump of cheese.
If players are unwilling to work off the ball the culture of any team is broken.
It’s not difficult to join the dots between France and Man United under José Mourinho. An Ole Gunnar Solskjær figure is needed
It’s not difficult to join the dots between France and Man United under José Mourinho. An Ole Gunnar Solskjær figure is needed. Tap into a coach the players respect and will play for, until they learn to play for each other.
Find a common language. I presume it needs to be French.
Toulon must carry plenty of blame. Their model of recruiting the best money can buy – from Jonny Wilkinson to Ma’a Nonu to Bryan Habana – has eroded French rugby culture.
There were always going to be unintended consequences from Toulon dominating Europe with only two or three French players in their team.
Contrast France’s drop down the rankings with Ireland’s rise, as the IRFU Player Advisory Board limits each province to one marquee foreigner to ensure our homegrown talent have a clear pathway.
Laporte is trying to align the clubs and national side. Toulouse finances dictated a return to local talent like Thomas Ramos and Romain Ntamack.
I wonder will these young, gifted French names break into the consciousness of an 11-year-old Wexford hurler?
Hardly, when he can ape Lee Chin or Tadhg’s pass on St Patrick’s Day.
. . . Didier Camberabero was cornered by white shirts and the touchline as Twickenham poised to swallow him whole. The French outhalf, this trapeze artist, showed that miracles are possible on a rugby pitch.
Camberabero chipped and regathered with one hand, all the while glancing in field for a kindred spirit, and just before Will Carling dropped the shoulder he punted into the vacant lot behind English cover.
Into this empty space, which they can no longer fill, came Saint-André. In a perfect snapshot of French flair Saint-André could allow the ball bobble and bounce yet still have time to evade Jeremy Guscott’s desperate dive.
England completed the ’91 Grand Slam, and again in ’92, but France represented the beating heart of rugby union.
Now, as I write, that’s lost. We are all the poorer.