“I think the French are in a mess,” observed Ronan O’Gara as bluntly as ever at his first press conference in his new guise as the Crusaders back coach this week. He should know, and most French observers would be of a mind to agree.
Les Bleus come into the 2018 Six Nations on the back of seven winless matches in a row, culminating in an embarrassing and lucky draw at home to Japan in November. This led to Guy Novès becoming the first French head coach to be guillotined by the French Rugby Federation president, Bernard Laporte, after less than two years in charge, with the former Perpignan and Italy coach Jacques Brunel leaving Bordeaux-Bègles to replace him with a new, hastily assembled coaching staff.
The Novès reign had begun promisingly enough, with France beating Ireland in his second Six Nations game in the corresponding fixture two years ago, which will serve as a warning to Joe Schmidt and the Irish camp as to the initial boost a new coaching ticket can have.
But despite his glorious 22-year reign at Toulouse, featuring 10 Championships and four European Cups, increasingly it was felt that his time had passed.
Rumours spread that Novès’s technical vision had become dated, that his debriefs lacked precision and his selection policy, such as it was, lacked clarity, although in this, like his predecessors, he wasn’t helped by the exhaustive Top 14. He used 74 players, including seven different halfback combinations, in his 21 games, of which France won just seven.
The only halfback combination afforded a run of four games was Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez, but the former's form fell off this season and Lopez has been sidelined for most of it.
In any event, Novès's days always seemed numbered once Laporte took office, the pair having been at loggerheads in the latter's time as France coach and Toulon coach.
Laporte accompanied France on their dismal 3-0 Test series defeat in South Africa, reviewing each game with Novès, who by all accounts began to feel the pressure. Laporte set an unrealistic target of three wins from a November programme featuring four games against the All Blacks (one uncapped), South Africa and Japan. After losing the first three 38-18, 28-23 and 18-17, and drawing the fourth 23-all, his goose was cooked.
Brunel, who was forwards coach with the French team under Laporte from 2001 to 2007, took Perpignan to the French league title in 2009 and spent five years in charge of Italy between 2011 and 2016.
The plan was to bring in assistant coaches like Fabien Galthié at Toulon, Franck Azéma at Clermont and Patrice Collazo at La Rochelle for the Six Nations, but all are contracted to their clubs, who have games during the Six Nations.
Ultimately, Brunel and Laporte settled upon ex-Clermont backrower Julien Bonnaire, who has no coaching experience, to oversee the line-out; Sébastien Bruno, who has been the Lyon scrum coach for 1½ seasons, and Jean-Baptiste Élissalde, who had been backs coach of Toulouse for seven season, with consultants Philippe Doussy and Jean-Marc Bederede as kicking and defence coaches.
In truth, there has been a steady decline in the fortunes of the French rugby team over the last years or so, featuring the grim four-year reign under Philippe Saint-André which culminated in that depressing record defeat to the All Blacks in the 2015 World Cup quarter-finals by 62-13 in Cardiff.
Biggest domestic league
They have the biggest domestic league in the world, awash with money and overseas players, with clubs backed by multimillionaires who look for short-term fixes, with little heed paid to nurturing indigenous talent, and until recently, only lip service to the notion of game management. The national team suffers under the weight of expectancy, a losing environment stifling and gobbling up young talent. In other words, they are a mirror image of English football.
France’s third-place finish last season was their first in the top half of the table since 2011, and extended a seven-year wait since the Grand Slam of 2010 – their ninth Slam and 17th outright title overall – which is their most barren run since their first title in 1959.
So it is that Brunel, at his unveiling, said: “Our aim is to win the Six Nations. Perhaps in the past, we were too focused on winning the World Cup and not enough on the present moment and that is the Six Nations. Every year, France must be competitive for the final victory.”
Quite what Brunel and co can achieve in two weeks remains to be seen. As Warren Gatland said this week, “France are an unknown quality and that’s the dilemma with them. We play them last so we’ve had a lot of questions answered. The thing with France is we’ve felt they have great depth and quality players, but they haven’t always been conditioned in the past as well as they could have been. That’s been France’s weakness and they’re maybe not as fit as the other teams in the competition.”
This French squad, as ever, has plenty of talent. But it is also very callow. Schmidt has highlighted that this is the youngest Irish squad in his five Six Nations campaigns to date. But while it’s true that the average age of Ireland’s 36-man squad is less than 26, the average age of the French squad is barely 25, and the average number of caps is a paltry 10 compared with Ireland’s 23.3. Come kick-off, that discrepancy is liable to be greater still, with new French combinations abounding against comparatively settled Irish ones.
The Irish squad has eight players aged 30 or more, and seven with more than half a century of caps. France has only one, the 31-year-old captain and hooker Guilhem Guirado, who has 56 caps.
Injuries and, in the case of Mathieu Bastareaud suspension, have denied Brunel a number of others originally selected in the squad, namely Morgan Parra, the flu-ridden hooker Camille Chat and his Racing team-mate, fullback Brice Dulin. This has meant a call-up for a seventh uncapped player, Bordeaux hooker Adrien Pelisse.
The loss of Parra is particularly acute. Left out in the cold by Novès, the 66-times capped 29-year-old Clermont scrumhalf was seen as the kind of charismatic leader who would have been a tactical lynchpin, working with the coaching staff and squad throughout the week.
Like the Racing fullback Dulin, Parra suffered an injury last week which has ruled him out of the Ireland game and has been replaced by Serin, whose form has dipped after looking like the French number nine for years to come in last season’s breakthrough campaign.
Maxime Machenaud is likely to start against Ireland, but he is more introverted than Parra. The only other scrumhalf in a callow collection of halfbacks is the Toulouse 21-year-old, Antoine Dupont, who has only six caps. Parra's importance was all the greater given the two outhalves in the squad are the 21-year-old Toulon outhalf Anthony Belleau and the uncapped 19-year-old from Bordeaux, Matthieu Jalibert.
Belleau, from Agen originally, joined the Toulon academy at 15 and adopted Jonny Wilkinson as his mentor. Toulon were prepared to release him back to Agen last season, but he insisted on staying, and when Francois Trinh-Duc was injured, Belleau scored the winning drop goal in the French Championship semi-final win over La Rochelle and performed well in their final defeat to Clermont.
He has a good kicking game and likes to attack the line, as he showed with his cheeky dink and touchdown for the match-winning try against Bath last December. But he is sleight and inexperienced.
His successor in the French under-20 team last season, Jalibert, is even less experienced, but looks even cockier, and classier. Electrically quick off the mark and a beautiful balanced runner, he has all the passing and kicking skills and more, and is a highly accomplished goal-kicker.
In the European Challenge Cup away to Newcastle, he laid on one try with a searing break off a line-out from inside his own 10-metre line, and scored a try of his own from half-way without being touched when steaming on to a pass from his scrumhalf, again straight off a line-out.
If some day Jalibert and Joey Carbery are going at each other in the Aviva or Stade de France as established Test outhalves, the game will be all the better for it.
Jalibert was only handed his first Top 14 start, by Brunel, on November 4th – two days before his 19th birthday – away to Toulouse. He landed seven of nine kicks at goal, although one of those misses was a 45-metre penalty with the last kick of the game which virtually shaved the upright. But overall he played like someone who’d been there for years, and has scored 157 points in his 14 starts for Bordeaux. He is the great white hope of French rugby.
A hard-working, ambitious, intelligent young man, who watches his idol Owen Farrell on YouTube, many journalists and ex-players would have preferred that he had been kept in the French under-20 squad for one more campaign. Yet with just 16 professional games, a dozen in the Top 14 and four in the Challenge Cup, of which just seven have been at outhalf in the Top 14, the feeling is Brunel may name Jalibert from the start against Ireland.
The starting team against Ireland could read something like: Benjamin Fall; Teddy Thomas, Henry Chavancy, Rémi Lamerat, Virimi Vakatawa; the uncapped Jalibert, Machenaud; Eddy Ben Arous, Guirado, Rabah Slimani; Sébastien Vahaamahina, the uncapped Felix Lambey; Yacouba Camara, Kevin Gourdon and the uncapped Marco Tauleigne.
“I would be disappointed,” said O’Gara were Ireland to lose. “It is an intimidating ground, it is the first game, the French are a team where bizarrely they can find confidence from the game itself as opposed to what’s happened before the game, but for me all roads point to an Irish victory.”