Settled Ireland may be favourites but underestimate France at your peril
You’d have to have sympathy for Phillipe Saint-André as he plays a difficult hand
If you ever wanted proof of the mess French rugby has got itself into, the fact that they are six-point underdogs against Ireland on Saturday is as good a place as any to start. Ireland should never be favourites against France, even at home. On a simple numbers game, the playing populations are just so vastly different. France shouldn’t win every time – but they should be expected to.
And yet everyone you talk to thinks Ireland will win. I think they will as well. I don’t think it will be a walkover and I don’t agree that they’re the bunch of clowns that everyone is making them out to be. I’ve watched and played against too many French sides not to be scared of them pulling something phenomenal out of the bag when everyone is least expecting it. But Ireland should win.
France beat Scotland on Saturday in a very dull game. Maybe not as dull as Ireland’s but very dull all the same. They’re big and strong and powerful and the Scotland game showed that they have a bit of structure about them now. But on this evidence, they’ve no flair. It’s all based on kicking and defence and stopping the opposition. It’s a far cry from the France I grew up watching.
I have sympathy for Phillip Saint-Andre. A few weeks ago, the newspaper Midi-Olympique polled the French squad to ask them who they’d like to see as their coach after the World Cup and not one of them said Saint-Andre. Not one.
How was that allowed to happen? What sort of set-up allows its players to do something like that to their coach just before the start of the Six Nations? What sort of players even entertain the question?
If The Irish Times had landed up to our hotel in Killiney before a Six Nations when I was playing and started asking that sort of question, they wouldn’t have got past the first player before being told where to go. But the French players not only answered but stuck it to their coach in the process. Crazy stuff. No other team in the world would do their business like that.
But that’s France for you. The normal rules don’t seem to apply. There’s no country in world rugby where the effect of money has been more obvious – for good in the case of the clubs, for bad in the case of the national side. There just seems to be no connection between the domestic game and the international one. The relationship has become more and more strained. We’re seeing the consequences.
But the French owners don’t care about that. Why would they? All they care about is winning the next game in the Top 14 and maybe in Europe. That’s what brings in the crowds, the sponsors and the money. The French national team is just a drain on their resources.
I was told recently that Brive have an academy in Fiji now. They’re out there teaching young Fijians French and rugby and getting them to the point where they can move to France to play for them. The drive isn’t to produce French players – although these Fijians can become French-qualified within a few years of moving to France. It’s to produce big players.
We all know what the Fijian body type is and why those French clubs would want them. You can’t coach size or natural physique. But the way the game is played in the Top 14 – big hits, massive runners, loads of contact – these are the type of players that suit best. Freak players, phenomenal athletes. Brive aren’t alone – there are over 200 Fijian players in the top three divisions of French rugby.
That’s just one example but it all feeds into the lack of harmony that exists throughout French rugby. In that scenario, how can the national team be expected to have any consistency? The contrast with Ireland – where the players are centrally contracted and everyone is working for the national team in some way or another – is huge. Obviously not everything with Ireland harmonious but there is a general agreement that most people are going in the same direction.
But in France, it all seems to be done on the hoof. There seems to be this notion that eventually, they’ll get it right because they have enough players and surely some of them will be able to gel properly. Only France could have made the last World Cup final even though nobody had any confidence in the coach.
You look at them now and you see a team with more foreigners in it than ever before. Scott Spedding, Rory Kockott and Bernard Le Roux are all South African and Uini Antonio is Samoan. Clermont’s Noa Nakaitaci is Fijian and will surely play some part soon. I know in Ireland we have the likes of Jared Payne and Richardt Strauss. But we have 120 professionals in this country.
You have to consider what is the point of international rugby. The day I played against France for the first time, I stood for the anthem and looked up at the seat in Lansdowne Road where I used to watch the games from as a kid. If you’re continually turning over the players in your squad and filling the team with guys who didn’t grow up in that country and don’t have any great connection to it, surely the whole thing becomes diluted?
Saint-Andre can’t win really. He gets handed a group of players and there’s huge expectation every time they go out to play. Because of the history they have of being unpredictable, no situation is considered so bad that they can’t turn it around with one big performance. But how do you get that big performance when almost everything is against you?
Ireland are favourites because there is continuity in selection under Schmidt. There have been a few changes because of injury but otherwise it’s been a pretty settled group. They know what the coach wants from them, they’ve learned the structure and the style of play he’s looking for. If one guy gets injured, the next one knows what to do straight away.
To beat France, Ireland need to hold onto the ball and use their fitness. We’re not going to run out over France because they’re big strong guys. Instead, we need to find ways of breaking them down. Take them through phases when we have the ball, stop them offloading when they have it. We need to put pressure on them, force them into mistakes.
I’d say that’s what we will see on Saturday. I can see it being a very tactical game for the first hour before it opens out. Both teams were involved in pretty dull games last weekend and it could happen again. France aren’t a pushover, no matter how much people talk them down between now and Saturday. No team captained by Thierry Dusautoir is just going to lie down and get hammered, no matter how much disarray there is behind the scenes. But this is a great chance for Ireland to beat them.
If France were playing New Zealand on Saturday, you’d still give them a sniff. And yet everybody in Ireland – me included – assumes we’re going to win. That’s France in a nutshell.