A VICTIM of the conflict between club and country, French rugby is in disarray. And Scotland has its best chance of winning in Paris for many years.
Has Scotland ever gone to Paris with a better chance of beating les Bleus, even when they did last achieve the feat in 1999? Looking at it from the Parisian end of the spectrum, the answer is clearly non! Definitely not since the beginning of professionalism and almost certainly not since the late 1960s has the French XV looked so vulnerable, so out of sorts, so ripe for the picking and so far from the presumed potential of this great, but inconsistent rugby nation.
After all, less than 18 months ago, Thierry Dusautoir and his men came within a whisker of winning the World Cup in a nail-biting final at Eden Park. But if the French media are fond of using the phrase vice-champions du monde, the title today has a horribly empty ring to it. France has not only tumbled to a lowly sixth place in the IRB World rankings but, in 320 minutes of rugby in the championship so far, they have also failed to show the merest glimmer of the style, panache or even the raw physical aggression which has made them such a respected force in the world game.
Although, by pulling off a draw (13-13) in Dublin last week, they have avoided the ignominy of France’s first whitewash since 1957, their record in the championship is the worst for 86 years. The Tricolores have now played seven matches in the championship without a single victory, a low point which has not been equalled since their cockerel-wearing ancestors suffered seven losses in a row back in 1926-27.
This is an almost incomprehensible dénouement when one thinks that, before beating Argentina 39-22 last November, they had previously dealt with the Wallabies, handing them a 33-6 thrashing at Stade de France. No wonder coach Philippe Saint-André, letting rip with one of his characteristic outbursts, last week compared his players to old men.
Lethargic, tactically and technically inept, physically dominated by their opposition in a spectacularly disappointing championship, this French side has looked but a shadow of its former self. They started with a shock defeat to Italy in Rome (23-18), where their Latin “pupils” turned the tables on their masters by scoring two tries from counter-attack and thoroughly deserved their second consecutive win against France at home.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the next week, les Bleus touched rock bottom against Wales, losing (6-16) in what this correspondent called “the worst performance by a French XV in 30 years”. Despite playing in front of their home crowd, against an unexceptional Welsh side, they stumbled aimlessly from lineout to scrum to maul, playing without passion or vision, and failing to create a single try-scoring opportunity in the last 60 minutes of the match.
After that debacle, Saint-André made eight changes for the trip to Twickenham, dropping most notably his preferred half-back pairing of Maxime Machenaud and Frédéric Michalak, and reverting to the tried and trusted combination of Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc, who first saw action against Scotland in Edinburgh in 2008. But even this heavy “rotation” of his squad failed to pay any dividends for Saint-André and, despite a small improvement in the overall quality of performance, they were still outplayed and outclassed by England, eventually losing by the same ten-point margin as against Wales (23-13).
Finally, last week in Dublin, ten points adrift (13-3) at half-time, the Tricolores looked as though they were once again heading for another defeat. But, after an appalling first half, they at least showed some spirit of rebellion in the second period, clawing their way back into the game thanks to an opportunist try from Louis Picamoles, the unstoppable Toulouse No 8 who has been the single source of satisfaction in this year’s championship.
All this must be a source of much encouragement to Scott Johnson and his men. Scottish victories in Paris are few and far between but rarely has a French side been so ill-prepared, so psychologically fragile and with such limited fire-power. All they have to show so far is their second-half rebellion against Ireland, a No 8 with serious ball-carrying skills, periods of sturdy defence against England and Wales, and the brilliant individual skills of Wesley Fofana, who ran 70 metres to score at Twickenham.
What then is wrong with French rugby? And why is the national team in disarray? The answer lies principally in the merciless fixture list imposed on French players and the lack of any agreement between the clubs and the national union (FFR). This was never better emphasised than before the first round of the championship. While the five other teams had already been in camp since the previous Monday or Tuesday, French players were obliged to play a round of Top-14 on the Friday night before flying into Paris on the Saturday.
Watching his troops limping through the arrival hall – four were unable to train for three days and a fifth was sent back to his club with concussion – Saint-André was fuming. “It’s as if we’re preparing for a competition where all the other teams are running the 100m, but for us it’s the 110m hurdles.”
To put it simply, French rugby has reached the end of a system, and while foreign players continue to flock to the green pastures of the Top-14, and various commentators continue to describe it as the finest club championship in the world, the French national side has been left by the wayside.
“Things can’t continue like this. We need a revolution!” snapped Saint-André. “We proved last year that when our players are physically and mentally fresh, they can beat any team in the world. But when they have played 12 games in a row for their clubs, there’s no gas left in the tank and you can’t expect them to perform at the international level. The last coach said it, the coach before him said it. I just hope that my successor won’t have to say it.”