The hooter has sounded (or, in the case of Stade Francais’ Stade Jean Bouin, the bell has tolled) and the great Romain Poite-in-the-sky is about to blow his whistle on 2013 – but there’s still time for one desperate last play to round off French rugby year in style.
But who will look back on 2013, the year that Toulon won the Heineken Cup, Stade Francais reached the final of the Amlin Cup and Castres were crowned Top 14 champions, with pride? Or frustration, joy, disappointment, happiness, anger – or any other emotion you’d care to think of..?
Success of the Year
This is a tough one, as French successes this year have been few and far between, to say the least.
After their perfect run in the 2012 autumn internationals, Philippe Saint-Andre’s side returned to action in a blaze of ignomany to win the wooden spoon in the 2013 Six Nations. That was, of course, perfect preparation for a tour of New Zealand in the summer, where – with perfect timing – the first Test kicked off just a week after the Top 14 season, the longest in professional rugby, finished.
But, if there was one faint glimmer of hope in the darkness of the French rugby year, it was the arrival of Brice Dulin at fullback. He actually made his debut for Les Bleus during their tour of Argentina in 2012, but really came into his own first during the ill-fated New Zealand tour, and then scored three tries in the recent autumn internationals. Injury permitting, he has surely cemented his place in the starting XV for several years to come. With wingers Maxime Medard and Yuann Huget also capable of playing at 15, it seems France’s fullback position, at least, is in good hands.
Disappointment of the Year
Some would argue, with reasonable justification, that the pitch at Stade de France should named and shamed. It’s clearly not fit for rugby purpose. The fact is, however, it hasn’t been good enough for years. Ever, to be completely accurate. So it’s more an ongoing disappointment than one genuinely worthy of being highlighted here.
The fact is that the biggest French rugby disappointment of 2013 is… well… France. Victories over Tonga and Scotland and a 13-13 draw against Ireland in 11 Test matches in 2013 are the only things that look vaguely like positives for Philippe Saint-Andre to take from a year that, in French rugby terms at least, has been the definition of an annus horribilis.
It’s hardly the record to be proud of two years ahead of the Rugby World Cup – especially for a nation with delusions of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy. Four matches, including three away from home, against the all-conquering All Blacks can be offered in mitigation, but other sides will have been watching Les Bleus shortcomings in the forwards and at nine and 10 with interest.
Player of the Year
Given this has been a disastrous year, it may seem silly to assume that any player in the national side would be worthy of a Player of the Year accolade. But that would be both unfair and inaccurate.
Brice Dulin, Maxime Medard and Yoann Huget are threatening to form a pacey back three that will challenge the best in the seasons to come. All could stake claim to the title, while SpringCoq Anthony Claassen has finally brought out the best in Louis Picamoles by making him work hard for the right to pull on the number 8 shirt.
But Clermont’s dashing centre Wesley Fofana has to be France’s Player of the Year. He has managed to carry his monumental club form into national colours. And he’s done it despite the team’s troubles. More importantly, he’s the ultimate team player. Yes, he does the flash stuff very, very well – but he also puts in his fair share of unseen hard work too.
Emerging Player of the Year
The finger of blame for the French national side’s on-field woes points firmly in the direction of the Top 14, where the clubs – notably rich-as-Croesus sides Toulon, Racing Metro, Stade Francais and Clermont – are spending huge amounts of money on overseas players. The age of French chequebook rugby shows no signs of abating, with Welsh and Irish clubs the favourite hunting grounds for scouts with euros to burn.
But the influx of big-name stars means chances for homegrown talent to blossom are few and far between. Stade Francais’ 22-year-old fly-half Jules Plisson, for example, has done little wrong – and much right – this season, but is likely to spend more time on bench-warming duties now that Morne Steyn’s South Africa commitments are over until next year.
Toulouse centre Gael Fickou gained a few more caps after making his debut in the Six Nations, but it is Perpignan wing Sofiane Guitoune who has made the most impact of the new caps this year, with his dashing breaks and quick feet.
In the pack, it surely won’t be long before young Toulouse hooker Christopher Tolofua gets his international chance, while Castres’ Marc Antoine Raillier is in a purple patch at the moment and could win a surprise call-up. In the back-row, meanwhile, Toulon’s Virgile Bruni just needs Bernard Laporte to give him a chance… which is more easily said than done.
What to expect in 2014
After France’s worst international year in more than three decades, questions are already being asked about coach Philippe Saint-André’s future, which means that predictions about the length of his tenure depending on France’s performance in the Six Nations aren’t that difficult to… erm… predict. A top-two finish is, surely, a must, otherwise the roar of calls for Saint-Andre’s head will become too loud to ignore.
Also expect Saint-André to indulge in a spot of tinkering at the nine-ten axis. Morgan Parra has been playing on reputation for some time, and with Rory Kockott due to become eligible for France in 2014, Parra will have to improve his performance or face a spell in the wilderness. And Remi Tales looks little more than a temporary sticking-plaster at 10. Jules Plisson – if he keeps the number 10 jersey at Stade Francais – and Perpignan’s Camille Lopez are surely better choices in the long-run.
Not that it will make that much difference. France are still likely to struggle in 2014. Though they probably won’t end up with the Six Nations’ Wooden Spoon this time. Ironically, they may have turned the corner by 2015, but it will be too late for them to win the Rugby World Cup.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images