Will France be making it up as they go along? We sincerely hope so

Ireland are as reliable as the Revenue, but there could be a burst of French spontaneity

Philippe Saint-André of France about to score a try during the last match of the Five Nations tournament at Twickenham in March 1991. England won the match 21-19. Photograph: Simon Bruty/Getty Images

Philippe Saint-André of France about to score a try during the last match of the Five Nations tournament at Twickenham in March 1991. England won the match 21-19. Photograph: Simon Bruty/Getty Images

 

There was a lightbulb moment when France played Scotland a few weeks ago and Mathieu Bastareaud essayed a delicate chip-and-catch over the advancing Scottish cover.

“Delicate” isn’t a word often – or ever – associated with Bastareaud, the belligerent 19-stone centre whose thumping head-on collisions with Johnny Sexton became so worrying at one stage that they threatened Franco-Irish relations.

It didn’t really matter what came of Bastareaud’s improvisation against the Scots (a try for Yoann Huget); it was the fact that he tried it that made you sit up. Already, the Parisian Six Nations crowd, a notoriously moody public with much to be moody about in recent springs, had thrilled to the sight of the French blades running the ball from their own 22 and scoring one of the tries of the tournament. The breakout of exuberance and spontaneity was like a sudden recollection: oh yeah – France!

For why does rugby even exist if not as a language for the French to show off their unique interpretation of what the game could be: part war, part dream? In the amateur era, part of the fun of watching any Five or Six Nations tournament was waiting for that moment when some wild-eyed French man – often side-burned, the bagginess of his blue jersey perhaps disguising the fact that he wasn’t in the best shape of his life – took hold of the ball and, just when good sense and the watching world demanded that he do the logical thing and kick for touch, he would be visibly possessed by some demonic impulse to have a go. You could hear the ripple of anticipation in the crowd, that sense of oh, would you look at these mad, beautiful French loopers now.

Try-of-the-century

There are any number of high points but there is a reason, for instance, that Philippe Saint-André’s score against England in Twickenham ’91 is always in the try-of-the-century conversation. You’ve seen it even if you weren’t even born then.

There was one of those slightly maudlin, anxious atmospheres in the stadium as Simon Hodgkinson – the elegant fullback who managed to play three full seasons for England without once getting mud on his shirt – trotted back to his patch, mildly reproaching himself for missing a penalty kick. And then Didier Camberabero collecting the dropping ball and holding onto it as some internal sprite prevented him from touching down for the 22 drop-out.

Instead, the number 10 sensed some moment of opportunity for French chaos, and so began a counter-attack from behind the French goal line. You’d like to imagine that it was the mere fact that the ball was in play behind the French posts that sparked the idea: imagine if we could score from here!

It was Serge Blanco’s final game, after all. Even from the perspective of 26 years, it is a moment of unique and wonderful lunacy. It shouldn’t have worked and, although we know the outcome of the move, there is an element of impossibility about the way the French passed and moved the ball from one end of Twickenham to the other through a combination of collective thought and complete unthinking instinct.

In that moment, the 15 Frenchman seemed lost in the daft joy of what they were doing with the ball. They wouldn’t have minded if the England try line was a mile away. And you have to remind yourself watching the smoothness of the sequence: those cats were amateurs. They were doing that stuff in their spare time.

Amateur show

And because it was an amateur show, there was nothing riding on it except the reputation of the country; on Monday, they could go back to mortal lives of work and wine and vague disgruntlement.

Nobody is expecting any modern coach to give his side license to attack from behind their own fullback line – even if Pat Lam gave it a good stab with Connacht a few seasons ago.

Rugby has become a different game since then, predicated on collision rather than evasion, requiring intense physical investment from its stars and rigorousness and pragmatism from its coaches. It has spawned a new, hokey language of analytical terms and phrases. One of the most commonly used terms is the dubious tribute of “managing the game”. As a phrase it’s the antithesis of what the French rugby team did in front of the stunned England crowd all those years ago. Banks or governmental departments are there to be managed. Rugby was supposed to be a canvas on which to go mental and create something beautiful.

Sunday against France has been framed as a crossroads moment for Ireland and Joe Schmidt

It was dismaying, therefore, to hear rugby analyst Neil Francis telling Mick Clifford during the week that the French can’t pass the ball anymore. It’s like hearing that there’s no longer any jazz to be heard in New Orleans.

Everyone knows that the French have been struggling to establish a definitive identity for too many seasons. It’s hard not to suspect that the whole move to professionalism, where the dreary business of bottom-line winning and losing is everything, doesn’t really suit the French rugby soul.

It could well be that a whole generation of potential rugby artistes like Charvet and Castaignède were drawn to parkour or big wave surfing rather than spending the best years of their life conscientiously moving the ball through the phases and impressing in the tackle-count.

New power player

Ireland is such a new power player in international rugby that the expectation of beating France remains strange after decades when their rugby teams existed in a different realm. After last year’s dream season, there is a strained look and feel about the Ireland squad over the past few weeks. The words of Steve Hansen, the New Zealand coach, were carefully timed and apt: “Instead of being the hunters they are the hunted and it’s different.” Indeed.

Sunday against France has been framed as a crossroads moment for Ireland and Joe Schmidt: a chance to recalibrate and maintain momentum towards the World Cup. It all started last year with the insane excitement of Jonathan Sexton’s injury-time drop goal to beat France in Paris. The outrageousness of the moment made the world quickly forget about the previous 80 minutes. But the game itself was a grim slog.

Everyone knows how Ireland will play on Sunday: they are as reliable as the Revenue in organisation and execution. The common complaint levelled at the French is that they have almost no game plan at all.

Fingers crossed that it’s so. What nobody remembers about that famous Saint-André try is that it occurred in a Grand Slam decider, and France ultimately lost the match 21-19. In fact, it wasn’t even the best try they scored that afternoon. They were making it up as they went along, gloriously and unforgettably. If France can even bring a glimpse of that to Sunday, then the game will be richer for it.

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