FRANCE captain Thierry Dusautoir has been here before, facing a barrage of criticism and wondering where it all might end.
Even the best players in the world are not immune. During the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, the blindside flanker had to field an incredible onslaught of criticism as the French lost to Tonga and struggled through the tournament. They came good at the end, reaching the final and only losing to hosts New Zealand after a close encounter, and Dusautoir was voted the world’s best player for 2011.
It is almost a case of deja vu this week in Paris, only this time the opprobrium is much closer at hand after a Six Nations in which the French have suffered three defeats and claimed one draw, in their last outing against Ireland. But, Dusautoir, a powerful, elegant and hugely skilful flanker – the seven is the blindside in French rugby, as in South Africa – has a similar emotion to that of just over a year ago, one of learning from adversity.
“These results have provided us with a rich seam of information which only served to take the squad forward,” said the Ivory Coast-born forward, who will captain France for a record 35th time this evening. “It brings out the character in people and forges a unified squad, which can only prepare us for the victories that are to come. We weren’t used to the negative pressure that came with the poor performances, but I have found that the guys have reacted pretty well because they haven’t allowed it to get them down.
“A win over Scotland will reward us for not having let up since the beginning. Yes, there is frustration at not having been able to validate all we have done in training these past few weeks on the pitch and having given the impression that we haven’t mastered the subject. However, I can assure you we have something left in the tank. We are really eager to win because it will do us good to troop off the pitch with a smile on our faces and to the applause ringing out in the Stade de France.”
That last bit was clearly heart-felt, but there remains doubt over how much losing games has developed any sort of resolve in this French squad. There is a seemingly unprecedented lack of expectation among French supporters for the visit of Scotland. The sporting press was full of the threat of the Scottish players yesterday and how Scott Johnson’s side has the ability to heap the final embarrassment on a nation that has to go back more than 40 years for their last winless championship. They may not rate Scotland hugely, but the suggestion is that “even they” cannot be taken lightly in Paris anymore.
Their main area of focus, perhaps the last refuge for French rugby supporters, was how the scrum and, in particular, props old the key to restoring French pride. After the mess of the scrums at Murrayfield last week, the French believe their route to victory lies through demolishing Scotland up front, as Johnson expected.
The contest will begin there but the ability of a new second-row pairing to contest the lineout and then Dusautoir and his back row to outshine the Scottish trio at the breakdown (or not will lie at the heart of whether France can gain the upper hand in the Stade de France tonight.
The 31-year-old skipper believes that the manner in which his side came back to claim a 13-13 draw against the Irish has sown the seeds of a revival.
“That was important. We were left with the feeling that we were capable of maintaining the intensity and showing character even under pressure.
“There are few teams who have succeeded in coming back against a dominant Irish side in the second-half of a game so to have done so shows that this team has the capacity to produce great performances.
“It has been a bad Six Nations. Whether we finish fifth or sixth doesn’t interest anybody. But finishing on a good note will do everyone the world of good.”