France haven’t the first clue what they are doing...which might make them deadly.
France have been shambolic under the coaching of Philippe Saint-André and while it is never wise to believe they are a spent force, few can see how a rabbit can be pulled put of this particular hat. MICHEL ESTIENNE reports.
THEY ARRIVE IN ENGLAND AS..?
French head coach Philippe Saint-André will arrive in the UK with the worst record in French rugby history: 15 wins in 37 games. ‘PSA’ is the only manager to never have brought his team to the podium of the Six Nations during his time. Not even once. ‘PSA bashing’ is all the rage in France…
So much so that former French star fullback and vice president of the Union (FFR) Serge Blanco has had to come to the rescue after the Australian debacle in June 2014. FFR vicepresident in charge of top-level competition was supposed to relieve tensions and clear up any misunderstandings. There certainly is a lack of clarity around Les Bleus before the World Cup. One year on, nobody knows what Blanco’s job really is. Super manager, big brother? That situation did nothing to help PSA establish his own authority.
WHAT TYPE OF FOOTBALL WILL THEY PLAY?
During the Six Nations’ last game in Twickenham, les Bleus have showed ambition. But to keep that promise, Saint-André will have to go against his habits. After years spent in the UK, he brought back to France the English’s rugby pragmatism: defence, set piece, kicking and occupation of the centre of the field are the rules he coaches by. He has often relied on Mathieu Bastareaud’s power to pound into defences. Against the English, France played their old expansive game, looking for space and constantly moving the ball around. They did concede 55 points, but they managed to score no less than five tries in the temple of rugby. At last, they took the matter into their own hands.
Under Saint-André, the French have come to play an ugly rugby, players losing all will to take initiative. Maybe Saint-André thought the type of rugby that helped him win the English Premiership with Sale would prove just as efficient in the international arena.
ARE THEY SUITABLY MOTIVATED?
After four years of being berated for their lack of positive results and a game that fails to raise the audience’s enthusiasm, les Bleus will certainly want to prove they are worth more than a mediocre 7th ranking in World rugby. With players with strong character such as Morgan Parra, Thierry Dusautoir, Yoann Maestri, Pascal Papé, or Yoann Huget, the team is bound to be highly motivated and willing to show their true colours.
DO THEY HAVE ENOUGH PERSONNEL DEPTH?
Since he took office, Philippe Saint-André has tried no less than 82 players, 43 of them never playing more than 5 games. He also tried 13 different combination of halfbacks. To what results? Dusautoir and Yoann Maestri are the only unquestionable players since 2012; there were some successful choices such as lock Yoann Maestri and loosehead Eddy Ben Arous for example, and some risky ones (Alexandre Ménini and Noa Nakaitaci). There were also serious misjudgements (Félix Le Bourhis or Antoine Guillamon).
CAN THEY COPE WITH THE PRESSURE?
France have been through tough times, from disappointing results to terrible games. In 2013, after a catastrophic Six Nations, Saint-André’s resignation was in the air. But Pierre Camou, head of the Union would not discharge him.
WHERE ARE THEIR WEAKNESSES?
Les Bleus’ main issue is their persistent inefficiency. They do break the gainline, but they can’t seem to be able to cross the try line as
often as they should. Lack of accuracy, patience or confidence. A few weeks away from the beginning of the World Cup, France have no designated No 10.
Camille Lopez, who had started during the November tests and the Six Nations, has been crossed off the list. A few approximate kicks, a couple of poor decisions and off he went. Frédéric Michalak, Jules Plisson, François Trinh-Duc or Rémi Tales: none of them has been convincing enough as his substitutes. The French may turn to Morgan Parra as first five-eighth, as they did during the 2011 final.
Another weakness is Mathieu Bastareaud. Not that he is not good enough. On the contrary. He has been the only answer to every problem the team has come across. The massive Toulon centre has crushed countless defensive lines, but has also drastically reduced the team’s game options. His formidable size is not conducive to bringing the game towards the wings. If the French want to play a more ambitious and expansive game, they have to rely less on Bastareaud.
Last but certainly not least, France need to address their poor stats when it comes to penalty kicking. A weakness that could be fatal at such level of competition. And a headache for Saint-André : “It’s been a problem for some time now. Should I swap a good player for a good kicker? I wonder.”
WHAT ARE THEIR KEY STRENGTHS?
France have always had heavy and powerful packs. Which is an undeniable asset for a team to feel secure in their game. With the exception of the last rather crazy game against England this year, France have shown excellent and rigorous defense with Dark Destroyer Thierry Dusautoir and Bernard Le Roux as formidable tacklers and poachers. Mauls are a particular area of expertise for Les Bleus also.
WHAT POTENTIAL PROBLEMS COULD THEY INCUR?
The French are no strangers to ‘palace coups’. If they start slowly in the competition, they may be tempted to pull the rug from under their coach. Saint-André’s tactical feebleness doesn’t sit well with some of the more senior players.
His authority over the group is shaky at best. Toulouse coach Guy Noves’ nomination in replacement after the World cup has made things worse. Noves is seen as some kind of Messiah who will make everything alright again for Les Bleus.
Will Saint Andre be able to finally decide on a first XV? He has been a volatile coach in terms of selection. He used 34 different players during the 2015 Six Nations. As a result, the team lacks the certainties and automatic reflexes necessary to go far into the competition.
DO THEY HAVE A STRONG ENOUGH LEADERSHIP TEAM?
During the Six Nations, the team found their leaders. The balance remains fragile though. Thierry Dusautoir is the indisputable leader of the team with 51 captaincies. He stands for a certain sense of duty and sacrifice. For a long time, Dusautoir seemed quite isolated in that role. The only other player with such aura and impact was lock Pascal Papé. Nicolas Mas, experienced tighthead, has proved he could be a precious asset for the team in terms of team culture. Lock Yoann Maestri, Saint-André’s most used player has what it takes to become next France captain.
OPEN UP: The French have lost
much of their flair.
INSPIRATIONAL: Thierry Dusautoir is a brilliant player and leader.