French rugby: exiled from artistry by greed or a coach floundering out of his depth? According to Philippe Saint-André, until the national team becomes the “church in the middle of the village” again their descent into mediocrity will continue to free-wheel.
What dangerous words to scribble hours before Ireland are walloped by “a baseball bat of noise”, as Mal O’Kelly once described entry to the Stade de France pitch.
On the evidence of a World Cup just past, and logic derived from seeing passive French defending against Italy last Saturday, Ireland should go six Test matches undefeated against them this afternoon.
Hard to know what to believe.
Monday lunchtime (secluded Dublin office): modern technology is not what it used to be. The line to Saint-André goes dead a second time in 20 minutes. He has another interview looming so we kept flinging one "last question", searching for more than his memoir Devoir D'Inventaire – Dans les coulisses d'une branlée historique ('Behind he scenes of a historic beating'), will ever tell us.
Anyway, dead line. We decide to make do with the juice already squeezed from a bedraggled winger who never lost to Ireland yet couldn’t coach Les Bleus to victory over them in five attempts. The captain of France for three victories over the All Blacks – twice in the summer of 1994 down in New Zealand – yet couldn’t field a team capable of unnerving Richie McCaw’s invincibles.
The man whose calamitous four-season reign as French coach, spanning 45 matches and an abysmal win ratio of 44.44 per cent, ended in the most ignominious fashion imaginable last October.
Saint-André, far too inscrutable to be a dolt, came into the Millennium Stadium press room late that Saturday night, following the 62-13 humiliation, to face a disgusted fourth estate. Question one: “That was a French side racing mopeds against Ferraris, how can you explain such ineptness?”
The 48-year-old refused to embrace this utter failure, perhaps knowing it will always be his alone, and anyway he had a book to dictate, then sell. “The frustration is more the second half against Ireland than today,” was the main trust of his latest excuse. But that 40 minutes when Ireland drilled into the bigger French pack despite losing Paul O’Connell (forever) and Peter O’Mahony, was hardly a refuge.
This was to be the gist of our interview until Saint-André called us back. Curiosity must have got the better of him. “Sorry,” he said, “what was it you said there about Thierry Dusautoir?”
The interrupted question concerned the recently retired Dusautoir’s legacy, leading the last great French team to glorious failure at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, only to have 2015 . . . Saint-André had heard enough: “A great man, a great player, such a fantastic captain, such charisma but I fear for guys like him, who tackle so much, who are forced to play so much rugby each year. It is becoming more and more difficult to play international rugby, especially if he needs to play for two or three more seasons for Toulouse.”
This occasionally valid point is how Saint-André constantly seeks to abdicate responsibility for overseeing the worst French results in modern times. This is the drum he beats throughout his book; the reasoning he gives for the French national team no longer being able to call themselves a superpower.
Saint-André is adamant greed is the mortal enemy. For Ireland it is the attritional nature of the game. A common axis of evil that threatens to plunder future prosperity as these rivals renew acquaintances in the concrete jungle of Saint-Denis this afternoon. “After 18 years coaching clubs and my national team I am more concerned about the development of young kids, to develop their skills.”
By this he means PSA Academies; the venture he seeks to promote in this here interview. “There is work to do with the kids. That is important now.”
A noble pursuit but how did the great French philosophy, a sometimes perfect mesh of brutality and flair, become so clouded that he must return to the grassroots? “Our Top 14,” he begins and constantly returns to as the nub of all problems. “With all the best players in the world coming to the French league, it is much more difficult for young players to get game time. Also our big players they are not available enough to the national team.”
So, France, as national concept, is doomed because of the Top 14?
"We need to make some correct decisions very soon. When you look to our best team winning the French Cup and European Cup with sometimes only four French players in the starting XV, it is not a French championship anymore. The French team is still very important in our country – 12 million people watched them during the World Cup. We need to make the team like the church in the middle of the village again. We need to give more time, much more attention, because now the guys are playing two weeks against Italy and Ireland, then they go back to their clubs in the middle of the Six Nations. That makes it very, very difficult."
That’s not enough to explain their capitulation at the World Cup.
Drain the confidence
“Ireland beat us targeting the strengths of the French team – our lineout, the ruck area and we didn’t have any ball. Ireland deserved it. Against New Zealand we knew we needed to take early scores to drain [their] confidence. But it was the complete opposite with that Brodie Retallick try. We had the opportunity to come back at 10-6 but each time we tried to create good phase play we lost the ball and from these turnovers . . .” He trails off before adding: “It was the worst result in my life.”
He sparks back to life when reminded of 1994: “Yes, three times as captain! When I am coach I played five times against them and lost five times. In New Zealand they don’t play more than 20, 25 games a season. The focus is about the country. I was getting players, sometimes, five days before a game.”
But this excuse is riddled with untruths as the French squad were at Saint-André’s disposal for many weeks before the tournament. And he had four years to plan, all the while knowing the odds. If he knew about the poison, why drink from the chalice?
“I accepted the job because I was a former player, former captain of the country. I tried to fight a lot with the organisation of French rugby. I tried but I failed. I don’t regret anything because I fought. I think people realise we need to change a lot of things if we want to be successful. It’s impossible for a player to be in good shape or good form when he plays 11 months of the year – starting club season in July and finishing on a tour in June. Too many games, impossible to be sharp.”
Hard to know what to believe. On results alone, Saint-André the coach was an imposteur. But he has ploughed enough fields on either side of this club-versus-country debate to understand the battle for the soul of French rugby better than most. His coaching career is chequered at best. He left Gloucester, then Bourgoin abruptly, there was some success at Sale, before dipping into the Mourad Boudjellal pockets at Toulon for two seasons until succeeding Marc Lièvremont as France coach.
“It was like coaching a world XV. Toulon is a good team and have won everything for the last five, six years, but it’s a world XV not a French club.”
So Boudjellal is damaging French rugby? “It is not him when we accept and give the opportunity for everybody to do this. In Ireland you have put in structures and numbers on overseas players. But in French rugby we accepted everything. Now we must rethink, now we must protect our French team.”
That Patrice Lagisquet and eventually Serge Blanco were part of his management (90 Test tries between them), the free-spirited style of olden times seemed certain to return. But we saw only flecks of it – the 2014 Six Nations decider in Paris when they dashed down field in a blink of an eye, only to be denied victory by a lack of poise in their attempt to unlock a scrambling Irish defence.
Clearly, players don’t make great coaches or administrators, but if Guy Novés, the great Toulouse expressionist, falters in similar fashion then Saint-André’s words will ring like church bells not only around the village but the entire countryside.
And only then.