New French coach is bidding to restore Gallic flair to a side which had become all too predictable, finds Ian Borthwick.
APOLOGIES first of all, for using an over-used quote from one of France's great revolutionaries to describe the ethos of French rugby. Danton's celebrated words have become a little clichd over the years, as scribes look for something colourful to describe the 'je ne sais quoi' which makes French rugby what it is. But somehow, as rookie coach Marc Livremont prepares to usher in a new era with Les Bleus in the first game against Scotland next Sunday, the idea of boldness and audacity once again once again seem remarkably appropriate.
Especially as, over the past few seasons of Bernard Laporte's eight-year reign at the head of the Tricolores, the word 'audace' disappeared totally from the lexicon of French rugby. And while the warmth and passion generated by French fans turned the World Cup into a marvellously successful tournament, the singularly lacklustre brand of rugby played by Raphal Ibanez and his men left their own public with a bitter after-taste. Despite the "bling-bling" of the coach off the field, gone was the panache, the lan, the spirit of initiative on the field as Laporte elected to play it safe, and ignore the rich heritage of le rugby franais.
Enter Marc Livremont, who was appointed the new coach of France three days after the World Cup final last October. Along with his assistants, former winger Emile Ntamack, and the little-known Didier Retire, an ex-prop with an appropriately rotund silhouette, Livremont has taken great pains to make a clean break with his predecessor. New players – including six new caps – a new coaching philosophy, a new management style, and above all, a new style of play.
Even in terms of his personality, the 39-year-old former international flanker could not be more different from the bespectacled chatter-box Laporte who has gone on to become Secretary of State for Sports. While Laporte was extraverted, with an overwhelming fluency of speech and a taste for the outrageous quote which always kept the journalists happy, Livremont is a man of few words, who measures everything he says. Indeed, at his first press conference at Marcoussis earlier this week, Livremont immediately signalled a radical shift in the team's culture, changing the event from a rollicking one-man show into a more sober and collective effort, with all three coaches fielding questions in turn.
"We live in an age where our kids are all obsessed with the idea of being on TV, but that has never been my ambition," said Livremont this week. "I spend a lot of time thinking about the game, and about how we are going to play. But I have never given the slightest thought to the way in which I would communicate with the press."
In terms of personnel, for the first game in his role of national coach Livremont made it clear that he wanted to start with a clean slate. Resisting the temptation to keep some of the old hands in order to ensure a win, Livremont has taken the bull by the horns. While players like Ibanez himself, Serge Betsen or Christophe Dominici were given the chance to retire gracefully, there are a number of shock omissions such as lock Jr'me Thion, back rowers Imanol Harinordoquy, Rmy Martin and Yannick Nyanga, scrum-half Pierre Mignoni, full-back Clment Poitrenaud, hooker Sbastien Bruno, not to mention the darling of the press, Sbastien Chabal.
In come a raft of talented youngsters, starting with a 19 year-old scrum-half from Bourgoin, Morgan Parra, 21 year-old flanker with the delightful name of Fulgence Ouedraogo, Julien Malzieu, a flying 24 year-old winger from Clermont, and the brilliant 21 year-old fly-half Franois Trinh-Duc, one of the revelations of the season in France, who stands a good chance of starting his first international next Sunday. Livremont has also gone for some more seasoned campaigners, who will nevertheless represent their country for the first time next weekend, namely Lionel Faure, the 30 year-old prop from Sale, Julien Brugnaut (26) a little-known prop from Dax, and rugged second-rower Arnaud Mla (28) who is the first international to be selected from the Albi club since 1963.
Given the number of untried newcomers, the obvious lack of familiarity with the players and the fact that his first training session as new coach has yet to take place, (the team will assemble for the first time this evening), Livremont is only too aware of the risks involved. But they are risks he is prepared to take. "The way I see it, my job is not to prepare a team to win the not to win the 2008 Six Nations. My job is to prepare a team to win the 2011 World Cup," he said. "Unlike teams such as Scotland, England or Italy, we will have had no squad sessions to prepare for the Championship. We will just have to keep it simple, and give it our best shot. I am not interested in simply winning games at all costs: what interests me is building a team for the future, and having a team capable of performing consistently on the international stage."
"Consistency" and "coherence" already appear to be the mainstays of Livremont's approach to the task at hand. And although he remains predictably vague about the game plan he intends to use against Scotland, he makes no secret of the fact that he wants his team to make a return to a more expansive and ambitious style of play, where the players are once again encouraged to take the initiative on the field. Despite the Springboks' recent World Cup success, Livremont says he is determined to move away from the stereotyped, kicking-oriented game which dominated the final phases of the Mondial.
"If there is one thing we won't be doing, it is copying South Africa," he insisted. "If we do that, we are dead! They have a player of the potential of Percy Montgomery but throughout the whole World Cup, he did not attempt a single counter-attack. Ce n'est pas possible! We believe that we have the potential to play a more ambitious style of rugby, more in tune with our own culture. We want a team of players with an attacking mind-set, guys who have the courage to attack, and to take individual initiatives on the field. But to do that, they must not be afraid of making mistakes, and we want to give them the confidence that will allow them to take risks."
All this seems to amount to a coach encouraging his team to be audacious. To be bold, and to play the sort of inspired, running rugby which has always been the birthright of the French. A return, perhaps, to the elusive ingredient of French flair? "What is French flair?" questions Livremont aggressively. "For me, it means nothing. It just means one magnificent match in the midst of countless games of an immense mediocrity. I don't believe in French flair. And what I want above all is for the French XV to show more consistency. And players with plenty of courage offensif." Or what Danton might have called "audacity".
Ian Borthwick is a senior rugby writer with L'Equipe in Paris
How they shape up
Colours: Blue and white
Stadium: Stade de France
Odds: 6-4 favourites
Coach: Marc Lievremont
Lievremont was the surprise choice as the new France coach following the World Cup. The former Test flanker was preferred to the likes of Fabien Galthie and Philippe Saint-Andre.
Captain: Lionel Nallet
If the coach's appointment was unexpected so too was his decision to appoint Castres lock Nallet as France's new captain following Raphael Ibanez's retirement. Nallet was only a fringe player during the World Cup and 14 of his 31 caps have come off the bench.
Key man: Vincent Clerc
The Toulouse winger was France's leading try-scorer at the World Cup and has continued that form into the club game, where he continues to score for fun. He will benefit further from a French back-line likely to be dominated by Toulouse players.
Strengths: Back row
The French back row is starting to blossom. Thierry Dusautoir was the French find of the World Cup and he is part of a dynamic loose-forward unit featuring the likes of Julien Bonnaire, and Elvis Vermeulen.
Weaknesses: Being French
It is a syndrome no-one has ever found a cure for. Why can a side be so mercurial and brilliant one day and so short on composure the next? They have lost leaders in Ibanez and Fabien Pelous and are still without one at fly-half.
Did you know?
France's World Cup coach Bernard Laporte took a job as junior sports minister after the tournament.
Scott Hastings' verdict
Of all the championship sides, no one has made the wholesale changes the French have. Marc Lievremont, the former French flanker who took over after Bernard Laporte's elongated stint, has retained only 11 players from the World Cup squad. Look out for changes in the forwards, with Julien Brugnaut from Dax packing down in the front row, Elvis Vermeulen at No.8 and Loic Jacquet from Clermont in the engine room France come to Edinburgh for the opening game and Scotland will need to ask questions of this young team. There is good experience in the backs with Jean-Baptiste Elissalde at scrum half and David Skrela likely to start outside him. Vincent Clerc and Aurelien Rougerie, in my opinion the best wing in Europe, are class acts but I believe that they will struggle to find form in this year's competition.