As the dust settles on the first weekend of the Rugby World Cup, Stuart Peel addresses the biggest talking point of them all.
The World Cup exploded into life on Friday night with Argentina’s magnificent victory over the hosts, but let’s get a few things straight:
1. Regarding Argentina – this victory did not come from nowhere and, while the impact on the tournament is clearly huge, this was not the shock to end all shocks;
2. Regarding France – they did not lose because they couldn’t rein in their attacking instincts and impose the necessary structure on the game. The metaphor of France as an artist who misplaced his muse is completely misguided.
This is in response to some of the lazy, ill-observed clichés which have been trotted out by the media in the wake of the opening World Cup match.
Taking the first point first, Argentina have been among the world’s stronger nations since they reached the quarter finals of the 1999 tournament by beating Ireland. Since then they have regularly beaten Europe’s best (including 5 wins in 6 games against France) culminating in a first victory at Twickenham last year. Many of their team make a huge impact week in week out in the Premiership, Top 14, Celtic League and Heineken Cup.
However, the fact that they are so good certainly does defy logic. They have been criminally mistreated by the international rugby fraternity – granted, not to the extent of the much-maligned Pacific Islands but that is another story. For the third consecutive World Cup they have been given the dubious pleasure of opening the tournament against the hosts, presumably with the logic (now shown to have been flawed) that they would provide a competitive game but would not stand too much chance of winning.
Still they search in vain for regular competitive rugby and hopefully this victory will nudge the powers-that-be into awarding them their just desserts (although let’s not hold our breath). There are clearly logistical issues to be addressed given that they are geographically isolated in rugby terms but to continue to ignore them would be folly and would undermine the IRB’s claim to be attempting to make the game ever more global. Argentina is now a leading rugby nation, ranked above the World Champions. The Tri Nations and the Six Nations should welcome them to the top table with open arms.
So what of France? The French under Bernard Laporte have been consistently frustrating but not in the ‘which French side is going to turn up?’ manner of the past. Laporte has attempted to introduce some long-absent pragmatism to the French game. He has striven to make them more professional and eliminate the hit-and-miss element which had held them back in the past.
Commendable intentions, but in doing so Laporte has blunted the creative, attacking edge which usually makes the French so compelling. France look confused. They have some wonderful players and the potential to be a seriously good team. Their back row is the equal of any in the world and their front five ensures a regular stream of possession. They have strong, towering centres and huge pace out wide. Yannick Jauzion is probably the best offloading centre in the world and with the likes of Remy Martin and Yanick Nyanga linking up the play, they have the potential to unleash a high-speed, balanced, powerful game.
The X factor would be the instinctive flair which lights up French rugby. It would distinguish the French from other international teams, most of whom do the basics similarly well. But Laporte has coaxed his players to crush those instincts in favour of his ultra-pragmatic approach. My enduring image of the current side is Damien Traille, a player with all the size, skill and pace in the world, hoofing the ball as far as he can down the field with monotonous regularity.
For the most part, Laporte’s approach has been successful. But there is always the overriding feeling that France aare not as good as they could and should be. And it was the new French approach which led to them coming unstuck on Friday.
Much has been made of the fact that they threw extravagant passes and made wrong decisions at every turn. But when all is not going well, you tend to fall back on what you know best. With their backs to the wall the French, as they did in the famous semi final of 1999, revert to type and reach for an expansive game. Instinct told them to do so on Friday. But a small voice in the back of their heads told them that this is no longer the way they play. That voice was Laporte. What we saw therefore was a confused bunch of players, fighting against themselves as much as the opposition, and falling flush between two stools.
Argentina deserve all the credit in the world for reducing the French team to such confusion and for taking advantage of it. But France’s performance was a symptom of the fact that while Laporte has striven so hard to eliminate the traditional French weaknesses, he has compromised their strengths as well. Thus the artist metaphor is misplaced, because the current French team is striving for a less artistic approach than any of its predecessors. That proved their undoing.