Only a question of time before French promise bears fruit
Laporte presiding over the structural changes that could see Les Bleus punch their weight
France celebrate their victory in the World Rugby U-20 Championship final against England. Photograph: Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images
“That’s our objective,” Bernard Laporte, the FFR President, told The Irish Times in August 2017. “It is why we have to start working now because for seven years the national team have not had good results. We must stop and reform.”
The inept performance at Twickenham last month made most wonder if France’s eight-year slump, since reaching the 2011 World Cup final, would ever end.
Sunday in Dublin could, conceivably, be that turning point.
“Fewer foreign players in clubs is the first thing we must do,” said Laporte. “Next, we need to train the trainers who are coaching players age eight to 14-years-old. That will only bear fruit in 10 years’ time. For now, the French squad needs more time together.”
Laporte was talking during a sortie to Dublin, en route to Medellin, to rub shoulders with fellow World Rugby executives at the Women’s World Cup. He was confident that the following November France would snatch the men’s flagship tournament from beneath the unsuspecting noses of Irish and South African delegations.
Laporte’s self-designed brief, having delivered the 2023 World Cup final to Paris, is to ensure the rising generation takes hold of the Webb Ellis trophy; the very task he failed to achieve as head coach in 2007.
Creating a clear pathway for these “incredible athletes” to mature may or may not happen before our eyes. A brilliant French side won the Under-20s World Cup last summer. Depressingly for Irish supporters, Trevor Brennan’s giant son Daniel was part of the group, tag-teaming at tighthead prop with Demba Bamba, who starts at the Aviva Stadium this weekend.
Romain Ntamack, son of the supremely gifted if tackle-shy Émile, was that team’s creative artist, as he will be at Lansdowne Road. Laporte, having warned the millionaire club owners to award player contracts from 2019/20 season with new rules in mind, is nearing a symbiotic state of existence with the Top 14.
“The average number of non-French players allowed in a match-day squads over the course of next season will be seven,” explained Stade Francais attack coach Mike Prendergast.
There are deeper-rooted issues. Many Irish players exposed to the French club scene speak quietly about a lack of work ethic and specialist coaching, something they took as the norm coming through provincial academies. They mention poor breakdown technique or an inability to read defensive systems, basics that are not drilled into players at the majority of French clubs while most of the medical stories are unprintable.
An obvious difference from France to Ireland these past 20 years is the IRFU opened its books to the finest Kiwi, South African, Australian and more recently English tactical minds that money can buy. Laporte concedes that the national team needs to leave New Zealand as the only country not to journey down this well-worn path of enlightenment.
He is mending a fractured core by copying the RFU and English Premiership relationship that financially reimburses clubs that lose players listed in a 45-man elite international squad.
“They are slowly finding common ground, step by step, with windows for preparation but they are still a few years behind,” Prendergast observed.
“Look at the IRFU, the fruits of all their work [over a decade] have only come through in the last two or three years. Honestly, the talent is here. I see it every day.”
Last summer Paul O’Connell joined his old team-mate in Paris, both working under former Springbok head coach Heyneke Meyer.
“I remember Paul saying to me after about two months, ‘Jaysus, some of these players’. They are incredibly athletic. They just need proper coaching. Proper conditioning. Only a few clubs have dieticians.”
The traditional French model is changing due to a revolutionary group of young men (several of whom will be on show this weekend).
“I do find this generation want to improve, they want to get fitter, they want more detail,” said the former Munster scrumhalf.
“A couple of years ago when I was in Grenoble, which is renowned as one of the best academies in France, I could see the desire to leave old ways behind. Winning the Under-20s World Cup last year is proof. There was a good statistic from the weekend – 17 of that squad played or were on the bench for Top 14 teams.”
This stat can also be interpreted as the root of the French problem.
With 36 professional teams, young players feel less pressure to “work their asses off to make it,” a well placed source noted. “Guys can rely on their natural talent and if surplus to requirement at a Top 14 club they can still drop down to a ProD2 club and still make very good money.”
Foreigners like Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt, and more recently Ronan O’Gara and O’Connell, endeavour to alter the French mindset but non-negotiables, like Sunday being a day of rest, is what makes their way of life so satisfying.
ASM Clermont Auvergne, Racing 92 and Lyon appear ultra organised. Toulouse and Stade are putting modern structures in place but the rest seem guided by a laissez faire attitude.
“This World Cup is a bit soon but there is a wave of talent coming,” said Prendergast, who happily contradicts himself when asked about Stade’s wonderfully gifted outside centre.
“Gaël Fickou, the form centre in the Top 14, and they pick him on the wing! You don’t do that just to get him on the pitch because there are better wingers over here [he lists off Teddy Thomas and all the Fijian qualified flyers including the “exceptional” Alivereti Raka].”
After tearing through Scotland, Fickou is retained beside Mathieu Bastareaud, both running off France’s bright new Toulouse stars.
“I’m delighted to see Dupont and Ntamack have been retained as the halfback combination. Leave them flourish together now. Dupont is an exceptional talent, unmarkable at times.
“Gaël was always a huge prospect. He came to Stade this season and has been our standout player. You need to get him on the ball as much as possible because he creates things.”
Basically, a bigger and faster Garry Ringrose, the meeting of these 24-year-old’s promises a jolt of electricity through midfield.
“It’s a hard one to call but France, even after beating Scotland, they are vulnerable. It’s easy to say but Ireland must hold onto the ball, play off nine a bit more and use the two or three trick plays that Joe is the king of. Do all that and the holes will appear.”
France will fade?
“If Ireland wear them down with a multi-ruck game they will get sick of defending.”
Jacques Brunel is another problem Laporte is expected to solve in 2020, if not sooner. Finally ceding to player demands – name a settled team on Tuesday and train us like professionals – the media has framed him as a lame duck coach.
“I think there will be changes after the World Cup,” said Prendergast.
“There are two names being mentioned over here. Pierre Mignoni may not want to walk away from Lyon and he’s still [at 42] a young enough coach. Franck Azéma has proven himself at Clermont.Bernard Laporte has come out and said, potentially, he might bring in a foreigner with them.”
Prendergast mentions Cotter and Eddie Jones but Joe Schmidt seems like the perfect solution?
“And he has the language and everything. I’m sure they will call him, no doubt, but he has been consistent about going home. If you are to get a foreigner in, he is your ideal man, in any team but especially in France as he has worked here and is respected massively.”
Les Bleus would never stop spinning if Laporte gifted Schmidt the keys to the kingdom. “What an exciting prospect but I don’t think it will happen.”