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.
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