The enigma that is French rugby has become too hard to crack in the past few years. In 2011, the national team were fed to the dogs for their below average performances in the World Cup in New Zealand, which included a pool stage where they staggered to victories over Japan and Canada, before a crushing defeat to the All Blacks. An expected heavy victory was needed over Tonga to progress to the finals, however, Les Bleus were beaten, and sneaked through on bonus points. Almost immediately, however, they managed to beat the English, before scraping past Wales to reach the final. They were dubbed, ‘the worst team to ever reach a World Cup final’, and a repeat of their pool stage match against the hosts, New Zealand, was the predicted outcome. Yet, the French replied with an outstanding performance, with their experienced and classy players leading the troops. They were pipped 8-7, and restored some of the pride lost in recent matches. Since that admirable performance, they have been once more, erratic. Changes in staff, and more importantly, drastic movement in positions have meant France are not performing at their highest level. A Grand Slam in 2010 has not been repeated, and they also received their first Six Nations ‘Wooden Spoon’ in 2013 since the invention of the competition 13 years previous. A lack of consistency has been missing for the national side, yet, on the opposite end of the spectrum has been French clubs. Since 2010, 7 clubs have contested European Cup finals, which includes the up & coming final between Toulon and Clermont at Twickenham. With the club sides performing so well, it begs the question, what is going on in the national set-up?
One place to start would be the style of play. The optimistic, free-flowing French, ‘champagne rugby’, as in the above video and loved worldwide, has gone AWOL, and current players such as Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget and Gael Fickou who have grown up watching legends such as Phillipe Sella, Serge Blanco and Yannick Jauzion seemed to be caged from displaying their divine creativity on the international stage. We have tasted glimpses of this brilliance, but it never seems enough. The French had a natural gift in which they could turn-on their attacking prowess whenever they liked, and from wherever they liked. But of recent, the only words that come to mind when watching the French are slow, labored and brutally boring, which of course doesn’t reflect what we witnessed in the incredible game against England last month. One prime example of someone performing to their highest ability at club level, but not reaching high standards in International tests is Wesley Fofana. The centre failed to score in the Six Nations, and compared to his first season with the national squad, has been extremely quiet. His club side, Clermont Auvergne, however, are second by 3 points in the Top 14, and will contest the previously mentioned Champions Cup final with top of the league table side, Toulon. Fofana has been one of the reasons Clermont are in these positions, with an array of chances created, as well as a handful of tries. So it must surely be a coaching problem then?
Phillipe Saint-Andre currently fills the national head coach position, and he has certainly had his critics. He is yet to find his first-choice half-backs which has meant a constant change, disrupting the whole team. He has launched a public attack of words about his players, and from an outside point of view, lacks passion. Perhaps his player management isn’t as up to scratch as one would hope, or maybe it is just a poor choice in tactics, either way, he isn’t getting the best out of his star players. You can only imagine the French fans will fear their chances in the up-and-coming World Cup in England, and with reports that the French Federation of Rugby have already picked their successor to Saint-Andre, the pressure will be building. Surely the coming months are the time for him to finally settle on his starting team and give the team the selection consistency they need to build confidence in each other?
To the naked eye the club game in France looks to be in rude health, with the nation’s clubs constantly at the top of the European pile. However the lack of salary cap as present in the English Premiership still sees a constant stream of the world’s best talent flowing to French shores, with the promise of making the big bucks and an improved overall lifestyle the main draws.
It is difficult to say, ‘how can Toulon be so successful, yet France can’t?’ As you only have to look at the Champions Cup reigning champions’ squad, which includes non-French talent such as Bryan Habana, Leigh Halfpenny and Chris Masoe, to name a few. Still, In Toulon’s semi-final in Marseilles against Leinster, five French internationalists started, and seven did the same for Clermont Auvergne in their game against Saracens in St. Etienne. So there are clearly plenty of international players performing and succeeding at the highest level, it just has to be transferred in to the national stage, and consistently. Until then, all we can do as either be pleasantly surprised, or annoyingly disappointed with the French side, emotions I’m sure a lot of neutral spectators experienced in the Six Nations.
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