English-French marriage of cultures could close North-South gap

Whilst the dust has now settled on the unsuccessful Southern Hemisphere tours in June, the debate over the North / South divide is as vehement as ever.

Wesley Fofana

England’s football ‘galacticos’ crashed out of Euro 2012, but for once, the country has embraced the idea that technically England are miles behind the continent. There was no shortage of spirit, their set pieces were strong, but their ability on the ball was desperately short of their Italian counterparts. Swap the word Italian with either South African or southern hemisphere and that would be a fairly accurate dissection of the recent summer tour of the England Rugby team.

The cognoscenti will immediately look to the SANZAR nations for an answer, or a model to replicate them to be more precise. However, the answer may only be across the channel, where the handling skills and panache of ‘Les bleues’ have mesmerized the rugby community worldwide for decades. But it is the mental and physical toughness of English players that is craved by French clubs, and the marriage of French flamboyance with English attrition are key ingredients in creating rugby giants in the top 14.

The French rugby system is structured in a way that gives young players more time to develop physically. Top Clubs don’t have second teams; they continue the age group system at u19, u21 and u23 levels. This allows young players more time to develop their core skills without a pressure to be packing bulk by the time they are eighteen.

This softens the hard-line gym culture from the age of 16 that exists in England where at times we are guilty of a ‘bigger is better’ attitude. Whilst this has paid dividends at age group levels, it has at time left the senior national side short, as was the case in South Africa with some players lacking the skill, technical ability and awareness to outplay opposition on a physical par.

The result at lower level French rugby is that players are released from the physical demands and results-based shackles of men’s rugby and given a freedom to demonstrate their skill set against their age group peers. What a joy it must be to play in a tight game where you are able to play what you see, even from your own line, without a fear of having your head blown off in the dressing room.

During my time with the ‘reichels’ U21’s at Aix-en-Provence rugby club I once witnessed a hooker attempting a dropped goal from the halfway line in an U19’s match against their Perpignan equivalents. The absurdity was not the act itself, more the accepting Gallic shrug of the shoulders from coaches and players at the result of the attempt – a horrible slice that sent supporters fleeing for cover like victims of an artillery assault (see jaco van der westhuizen’s attempted drop goal against Australia in 2006 for a visual reconstruction).

Whilst an early introduction to men’s rugby certainly helps players to adapt physically, if they can’t experiment when they are eighteen year-olds playing against people of a similar size physically, then when will they ever learn the true limits of their skill set?

Players like George Ford, Christian Wade, Jonny May and Freddie Burns need to be given a chance to try things without each move they make being overly scrutinised, allowing them to hone their skills and develop their talent – otherwise it could all be lost in the pursuit of physicality. You have to wonder whether the likes of Morgan Parra, Wesley Fofana or Clement Poitrenaud would ever have played international rugby had they been born in Leicester rather than France.

By Mike Dolan

8 thoughts on “English-French marriage of cultures could close North-South gap

  1. Yeah, some interesting points raised. Still think the biggest problem with rugby union in England is the public school system, which provides the overwhelming majority of young players for professional academies leaving a large, untapped pool of talent. The game needs to be given to everyone, not just the rich boys.

    1. I think that you need to look to the youth set ups, up and down the country and not blame the public schools who generally coach young players better than the clubs. I have a son who plays at his public school and at his local rugby club and the coaching is light years ahead at the school. I fully accept that this is undoubtably a reflection of the time and money available at the school, but don’t knock them for doing their best. I think that the RFU probably ought to be doing more, but they will undoubtedly say that they are. However your point might suggest that this is not the case.

      1. James – “Still think the biggest problem with rugby union in England is the public school system” and “The game needs to be given to everyone, not just the rich boys”. Is that a chip on your shoulder or what? Sounds like you’re blaming the public schools for producing the best players. What else should they do? Think you need to look in the other direction and ask why the state schools are not producing the talent or talent pool… As Staggy said, this is where the RFU needs to operate and improve massively. You also have to consider that many public schools attract the best state school rugby talent from ages 14/15 to 18… allowing them to develop in a more advanced coaching environment. Any issues with that?

    2. State schools and the government don’t respect sport in general, it’s not the public schools fault or the RFU

  2. Decent article but it’s difficult to read it without noticing that it contains bile:

    “You have to wonder whether the likes of Morgan Parra, Wesley Fofana or Clement Poitrenaud would ever have played international rugby had they been born in Leicester rather than France.”

    – Leicester is not analogous to France. Chip on th shoulder there I think.

    “But it is the mental and physical toughness of English players that is craved by French clubs, and the marriage of French flamboyance with English attrition are key ingredients in creating rugby giants in the top 14.”

    – Patting yourselves on the back again there I’m afraid. England produces physicality on the law of averages alone. You have more registered players than the rest of the world combined. It would be hard not to develop attrition. Your view seems very naiive at this point. Do you really think it’s just attrition in NH teams that is the problem. It’s much more than that. It’s a fundamental cultural difference partly. There’s no team in the world that’s just attrition, not even England!!

    “The French rugby system is structured in a way that gives young players more time to develop physically. Top Clubs don’t have second teams; they continue the age group system at u19, u21 and u23 levels. This allows young players more time to develop their core skills without a pressure to be packing bulk by the time they are eighteen.

    This softens the hard-line gym culture from the age of 16 that exists in England where at times we are guilty of a ‘bigger is better’ attitude.”

    This part sounds more coherent.

  3. Interesting article but doesn’t seem to mention that really England is by itself here rather than it just being a case of not being much like France. They could also look North, over the Severn or across the Sea and find teams and development structures that favour skills over bulk. As you rightly point out, England dominate the six nations at age grade level where the difference in size can be hilarious to see sometimes, but when those size differences are ironed out it’s the skill that dominates. This is why England do not translate that dominance to the senior game against anyone let alone the SH teams mentioned in this article.

    English age grade rugby, in my experience, is dominated by the old fashioned public school idea that Rugby is a crucible through which young gentlemen are fashioned – physically roasted alive to come out of the other end tougher and stronger. This inevitably leads to the development of bigger and bigger because at age grade you can craft massive physical differences with which to smash the opposition.

    I see the same in my sons age grade team – we have boys who tear it up at under 10s when they are twice the size of everyone else but by the time they are 15 they drop out as they never learned to pass, jink and think while smashing their way up the middle.

  4. Hi all

    i Was not trying to eulogize English nor French rugby for that matter. I actually feel that Wales are probably closest to the SH sides of any of the NH sides, though they seem to have a mental block whenever they see a Green, Black or Gold jersey. Ireland seem to only have one or two big games in them a season. France and England do however have the best records over SH sides over the last ten years, and i was trying to delve into the two cultures in search of a formula for wins more consistently. There are, as you all have stated, far more issues to address than this article was able cover.

    As for the public/ state school debate. Public schools do offer scholarships to talented state school players. Furthermore the appearance of AASE colleges such as Twyford, oaklands, moulton, filton etc has opened up opportunities for players coming from less economically favorable backgrounds to play rugby and train at a high level. The problem remains with coaching and culture. There needs to be more emphasis with what you can do with the ball to beat the opposition, rather than what you can do to your body.

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