France straining under the yoke of Saint-André’s tactical straitjacket

Inconsistent selection and brutish, forward-orientated tactics testing the patience of the French fans

France coach Philippe Saint-Andre. “He may  be a practical coach but the French media stone him for his inability to settle upon a team.” Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

France coach Philippe Saint-Andre. “He may be a practical coach but the French media stone him for his inability to settle upon a team.” Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

 

Only place to begin is at the end of Paris. When the Ides of March were overcome.

Sexton had been carted off (not an omen just another reason to avoid going high on a 120 kilogram centre) when Mathieu Bastareaud grabs the garryowen from Rob Kearney’s reliable grasp. The French flow like wine to their right. O’Driscoll empties himself with one last kamikaze tackle on Remi Tales but Pascal Pape, one handed, scoops the ball from his ankles and trundles onwards.

Stade de France is deafening. 78.13 on the clock, the French flow left . . .

Every Irish man with a memory reaching back to 1991 groans. The try that silenced Twickenham: Pierre Berbizier catches the missed penalty from Simon Hodgkinson in his dead ball area. Serge Blanco takes off, fleeing like a shoplifter down an alley. Philippe Sella and Jean-Baptiste Lafond instinctively follow.

Time to play.

Those watching on television are only made aware of this senseless counter-attack when seeing the England fullback, mouth agape, belatedly react to three blue objects dashing diagonally past him.

Lafond feeds Sella, barely moving yet eating up the grass, performs a sumptuous reverse pass that finds the genius that is Didier Camberabero. The white surf breaks across halfway but Camberabero chips and gathers, beating the wave to shore. The outhalf glances inside as England’s disgusted captain Will Carling closes in.

Seven strides

Jeremy Guscott

Back then no one could have imagined Saint-André – Ireland’s bane in 1993, 1994, 1995 (twice) and 1996 – would be accused of strangling the last breath out of Gallic flair.

The French rugby newspaper Midi Olympique recently took a poll of current players to see who should succeed him after the World Cup.

From today’s 23 – Yoann Maestri, Clermont captain Damien Chouly, Guilhem Guirado, Rabah Slimani, Rémi Talès, Benjamin Kayser and Rémi Lamerat cast private votes. Only four players abstained. Current Bordeaux-Bégles coach Raphaël Ibañez was the clear favourite with 13 votes. Fabien Galthié got three approving nods.

That easily beats the emailing of private player assessments to players.

Saint-André is a personable, intelligent man. By opting to adopt a brutish forward orientated way, he may also be a practical coach but the French media stone him for his inability to settle upon a team.

Joe Schmidt would get away with 14 halfback combinations in three and a half years because Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have only lost three of 14 Test matches.

Easier to bury traditional ways if you are winning. France have lost 17 of the Saint-André’s 33 games in charge.

“If Jonny Wilkinson was French he would only have got (between) 20 and 40 caps, never become a world champion or reach the level he did,” says Laurent Bénézech - the former international prop and author of Rugby, Ou Sont tes Valeurs (Rugby, where are your values).

“An example: Jules Plisson is 23 and has the same ability as Wilkinson did at that age but the way France is using this player shows what always happens.”

Great skills

Six Nations

“We have a huge amount of players with great skills which makes us think we can switch from one to another as easy as we like,” Bénézech continues. “We never build a player with a real strategy thinking that player is the one we want and we are going to help him go through everything just to increase his potential to make him the match winner a team needs.

“If we could figure how to do that . . .”

The change in philosophy can be traced back to the 2003 World Cup semi-final when Galthie’s France were outmuscled by Martin Johnson’s England.

Story goes that Bernard Laporte swore this would never happen again. France head coach from 1999-2007, Laporte was granted four more years to capture the William Webb Ellis on home soil. Defeat to Argentina forced them over to Cardiff where, without any warning, they produced the greatest shock rugby has ever seen, before or since.

Then England, incomprehensively, despite being a shadow of their 2003 side, put them out in the semi-final. Again.

Les Bleus journey through New Zealand in 2011 made even less sense.

“I think anyone who was at the World Cup last time in 2011 watched France play Tonga and you give them no chance of being in the final, let alone winning it,” Schmidt said to a French journalist asking about today’s relevance to Ireland meeting France in Cardiff on October 11th.

“They were incredibly unlucky not to win it and probably deserved to.”

They could call it le grand mystère but Bénézech outlines some fundamental problems: “The French coaches don’t have the players for enough time and the players are playing too much so they are also tired.”

“Saint-André and Patrice Lagisquet had a view on how to use the players but now you have to add Serge Blanco in the position of super coach of the team who is obliged to add some new players . . . ”

An Irish perspective from France. Mike Prendergast and Bernard Jackman are brave young coaches trying to earn a living by bringing structure to Grenoble.

“Inconsistency is the problem,” said Prendergast, a Limerick man who played scrumhalf for Munster, Bourgoin and Gloucester before coaching took hold.

“Defences are more set and structured now so to play that rugby you have to have patterns. That lets them down. A couple of years back you could do that. That space doesn’t exist anymore, especially in international rugby.

Two minds

Scott Spedding

Spedding plays at the expense of the wonderfully gifted Brice Dulin.

“The French public love to see the Gallic flair but they love winning as well.”

Saint-André’s win ratio (45 per cent) is atrocious for a tier one nation with his only real success as a coach coming when Sale clinched the English Premiership in 2006.

“I don’t see a major game plan there,” Prendergast admits. “Joe is clearly building a squad, he is dropping players in and out but seems to know his best 23, whereas Saint-André has been making wholesale changes. He still seems unsure of his best squad.”

The French attitude and lack of conditioning seems born out of laziness?

“ It’s a funny thing you said there, ‘they seem to be lazy’ but I think because they have less structure they get lost and look lazy,” says Prendergast. “In fact they are not lazy, they just don’t know what pattern they are supposed to play.”

So the natural inclination to free-wheel from deep in their own territory is militating against their collective progression in a sport that has changed radically since the 1990s.

“Myself and Bernard introduced a structure and some patterns to our game this season. It took a bit of time as the French boys weren’t used to it, the foreign players were, but to be fair they took to it really well. That’s only really happened this year. Our French players bought into it. I’m sure, at a national level, they would buy into it as well.

“They could be scarily good if they had those patterns and game plans.”

Stade de France is deafening. 78.13 on the clock, the French flow left...

Maxime Mermoz, barely moving yet eating up the grass, performs a sumptuous reverse pass that finds the genius that is Maxime Medard (both men miss out today). The green wave breaks with Andrew Trimble then Fergus McFadden barrelling the winger into Jamie Heaslip’s solid embrace. Six metres short, it goes to Brice Dulin (also dropped today) who flings it 20 metres infield to Tales who effortlessly shifts it to Yoann Huget and on to Pape.

Muscle memory betrays France as their captain takes Dave Kearney’s tackle but passes forward to Chouly.

The rest you know. A scrum. The Fields . . . somehow sneaks through the din. A scrum turned by Vincent Debaty. Iain Henderson beginning what will hopefully become an epic highlights reel. Chris Henry, Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell and young Henderson wrapping up Sebastien Vahaamahina as Ireland choke the last gasps of air from Gallic lungs.

But beware the French. Too many historical reasons not to. Prendergast gratefully accepted a watching brief in Carton House last week (just another of those unseen, long term investments by Schmidt) .

“They are all very, very clear exactly what their roles are. Ireland look like they have their bit between their teeth. The strength in depth is really there now and with so many players coming back from injury, yeah, I think they’ll win.”

Strange times. But at least an old motivating factor still exists; France can always morph into their irresistible selves.

“I think there is always a fear factor with France,” said Peter O’Mahony on Thursday. “They are always unpredictable.”

Always a mystery.

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