Emile Ntamack rues loss of French identity as son Romain prepares for Scotland clash

Emile Ntamack is the Zelig of rugby, a ubiquitous presence at almost every big occasion that the game has hosted in a generation or more. He was there in 1994, the last time any side beat the All Blacks at Eden Park and two years later when the Heineken Cup was first presented, it was his hands that accepted it on behalf of the Toulouse side that he captained.

Former player Emile Ntamack looks ahead to France's clash with Scotland. Pic: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty/
Former player Emile Ntamack looks ahead to France's clash with Scotland. Pic: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty/

He played in the most life affirming game of rugby I ever witnessed, the RWC’99 semi-final at Twickenham when France overhauled the All Blacks in stirring style, scoring 33 unanswered points just when everyone had washed their hands and he was present when Scotland last won in Paris that same year.

Ntamack was even there when Les Bleus lost the RWC’11 final to Les Blacks by the narrowest possible margin, assistant coach to Marc Lievremont. And he coached the French U20s to the World Championships in 2006, a feat they repeated last year with son Romain Ntamack scoring against the Junior All Blacks in the semi-final.

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Now dad is enjoying watching Romain do it all again at the highest level (he still qualifies for the U20s), at the tender age of 19, a teenage slip of a centre among the midfield monsters yet still holding his own in a French team that is frankly dysfunctional.

Ntamack senior was a classy centre-come-wing-come-fullback, he started all three positions for France and he played all three in one Test, that 1999 loss to Scotland, which only exposes the current “out of position” anguish over some French players as the nonsense it is.

He hails from a different era, one in which France not only could beat anyone on their day but did so…regularly.

Ntamack helped them to the Grand Slam in 1997, claimed a hat-trick against Wales in 1999 (and still lost) and finished with four wins from his six Tests against the mighty All Blacks, which is surely a record of sorts.

Oddly enough he managed only 50 per cent against Scotland, two from four, although they were big wins and the winger scored that crucial injury-time try against the Scots in RWC’95.

Overall Ntamack won 70 per cent of his Tests, a far cry from the 23 per cent that this French team boast, if that is the right word, under their current coach. Jacques Brunel was the pick of Bernard Laporte, current president of the FFR, who has a lot to answer for.

It may be the obvious question but it is still one that has to be asked, what the heck happened to France?

“It’s difficult to say,” says the philosopher wing. “I think maybe that time passed and we lost our identity. I think that is the problem. You can be incredible sometimes, you can be magical but sometimes you are down and you have to accept that. That is French life, that is the French culture.

“For a long time we stayed at the top level (of rugby) – we beat England, we beat the All Blacks – but to stay there is impossible for us because it is not part of our tradition (culture). And now we have found the secret of being consistent but we have lost everything because we are regular (consistent) at the bottom level. We lose all the games!

“I don’t really think it’s a problem of the coach, I think the problem is deeper. I talk about Top 14 and you know what I want to say because you can see our clubs compared with British clubs. Of course we were proud because for three years Toulon was on top of the European Cup but that was not a French club, it was a world selection, a world club.

“Our Top 14 is open, maybe too open. Look at the Irish and Welsh provinces and English clubs, they support their own people but we don’t do that. You have to have space for French players. Now you look for a French right prop (tighthead) and you have Charlie Faumuima (a Kiwi prop who is not eligible for France) or you have Uini Atonio (a Kiwi prop who is) and after that…” Ntamack leaves the thought hanging in the air.

“You need French players but you do not have (enough), so you have a big fight between the club and the union. Everybody in the world protects their national team, except France.

“It is a circle, at the moment we are down but it will turn and maybe with a new generation, new players and a new spirit… you see the U20s last summer… we have the players, we have the talent. It’s not like France is a desert.

“We need to organise our rugby between the clubs and the union much better but we have the talent. For the moment we are too far away but things can change very quickly.”

Quickly enough for next weekend, when Scotland go in search of their first win in Paris this millennium? The big fella declares himself as confused as anyone else as to what will unfold come kick-off. Following that Twickenham hiding, he expects a reaction from the French but beyond that… ?

“What team is going to start the game? We don’t know. Players like Bastareaud to play his style or maybe a Romain Ntamack,” he uses both names, “and the new French generation? We don’t know, we just don’t know.”

Even Mr Magoo can read between these lines.Ntamack is hoping for a change of heart by the selectors and a change of direction away from a policy that values size over skill and speed. Ball-in-play stats suggest that the Top 14 is live for ten minutes less than the Pro14, an average of 26 against 36 minutes, and that ten minutes equates to 38 per cent… a huge jump.

Dad is understandably proud of his son’s success but while Emile is currently director of the Toulouse academy, from which Romain emerged, he is not a helicopter parent.

“I am just a father, proud and happy for him because he grew up with the dream of one day wearing the blue jersey,” says Ntamack. “What is incredible is that he is just 19 but he is already ready to fight and ready to play although he has a lot of things to learn.

“The most important thing for me is, ‘are you happy with that?’ and if he is happy then its OK for me too. He is just at the beginning of his career with the French team, he is happy and for me, I am just enjoying the moment.”

Enjoying the moment but not the results. Ntamack feels that France are in such a bad place that Les Bleus may miss out on a World Cup quarter-final for the first time ever, a shame given their history in the tournament in which they have competed in three finals the last of which was agony.

France lost the final of RWC’11 to the hosts New Zealand by 8-7, one miserable point, and this after losing to Tonga in the pool stages.

Les Bleus dominated for much of the second half, unable to buy a penalty from referee Craig Joubert at the set scrum which they bossed. It was only eight years ago but already feels like a lifetime ago to the current French fans.

“It was close,” recalls the then French assistant coach, “but in sport you get what you deserve. The final was incredible for France, for the country and everyone who supports us. We saw a great group of players who can be proud of how they fought.

“We lost the final but it’s not so easy to play the All Blacks in New Zealand. It was a great performance. We lost the cup but we won dignity and respect for the jersey and, in France, this is not nothing.”