After the sterile, indisciplined ugly occasion of the Amlin cup final on Friday, it is clear that French rugby has lost its verve. The BBC christened the game as a “Typical French rugby domestic dogfight”. Wayne Barnes did his best to weave a good game out of the dross on offer but when players are only concerned with not losing he had no choice but pinging both sides. Playing schoolboy rugby in the valleys of the ‘70’s we were taught that there were only 2 nations that we had to be concerned about. They were first, the All Blacks, legends of the darkness, menacing full of relentless power and pace. The other was France, our spiritual brothers wedded to clever passing and the élan of the counter attack.
Yet as the dust settles from the Six Nations of 2012 and the enthralling Heineken Cup, only Wales and the Irish seems to have stuck to her roots. France appeared lost in a sea of indecision, preferring pragmatism and power to skill and the finding of space, a sterile ethos, which led to one of their most disappointing performances ever in the tournament. Such an approach has failed; it’s the Celts that rule in the northern hemisphere and France, despite some halfhearted excuses from a disappointed Saint-André, is left to retreat behind the barricade of the Top 14; supposedly the best league in the world, certainly the wealthiest.
The struggle for the Boucleir de Brennus is the most attritional tournament in world rugby yet to the clubs and supporters of France it is the Holy Grail. To achieve it super wealthy French businessmen throw their fortunes away, apparently to gratify their own egos and wallow in the adulation of the supporters of “their” club. Ultimately the rugby on offer is a far cry from what is considered generic French rugby; wedded to attack, style and entertainment. Avoiding losing is the premier aim of all teams, only occasionally does a bout of exciting rugby breaks out. Most clubs are the baubles of rich businessmen, who adopt the approach that in order to win, in order to be loved by the supporters you have to give them the best players not only from France but from all over the world.
But there is very little evidence of building for the long term, creating stability. Defeats are seen not as a chance to learn or develop, but lost in the confusion of freefall and maybe, heaven forbid relegation. Clermont failed in their Heineken semi-final, yet were they that bothered? They make no secret that it is the Boucleir de Brennus they covet. Mourad Boudjellal’s talk of the need for success in Europe, he knows it’s the Boucleir de Brennus that he knows the Toulon supporters demand. All of this has a cost not just in monetary terms, but for the French national side. The currency of France as an international force is on the slide. Saint Andre will be viewing the forthcoming tour to Argentina with trepidation. The Top 14 final is on the 9th June, and a week later he is going to have to put out a team against the Pumas in Buenos Aires. He knows his players will be exhausted, bruised and battered.
Saint-André is between a rock and a hard place. The supporters expect France to win in style and to do so in every game but they also want their clubs to do well. After the World cup Saint Andre decided not to rebuild, and largely stuck with the side created by the eccentric Lievermont. Coach Philippe Saint-Andre clearly wanted to start his coaching reign with a Six Nations’ win. He failed. There are no excuses for the result. His team was the most experienced of the tournament.
He knew that Nallet, Bonnaire and Servat were retiring from international rugby after the tournament, while players around 31 or 32 included Rougerie, Clerc, Yachvili, Harinordoquy, Pape, Mas, and Poux. Yet, all of them were selected. Nallet, Bonnaire and Servat ended their rugby career on a sour note. Dusautoir, Debaty, Szarzewski, Pierre, Poitrenaud and Fritz will all be around 32 or 33 come the next Rugby World Cup. Some are still at the top of their game. Leaders like Dusautoir or Szarzewski should stay and make the transition between the generations.
But Debaty, Poitrenaud or even Pierre have always been fringe players for France and this won’t change: they are not going to be the best in their position in 2015. Many in the 22-man squad which played against Wales in the Grand Slam match are not even regular starters at their own club. Beauxis is behind McAlister at Toulouse; where Poux shares the front row with Steenkamp, Botha and Johnston.
Pierre has to deal with Cudmore and Hines in Clermont’s second row; while his teammates Rougerie, Fofana, the great French hope and Buttin share the backline with Sivivatu, Russell, Canale, Byrne or King. This pattern continues across the league.
But did Saint-André have any choice? This plainly did not work, as a return of only two wins is simply not good enough. All over France the players that compose the spine of a successful rugby side are not French, and the issue has been recognized. The clubs are now being put under pressure by the FFR, yet the malaise will continue. The FFR might have put in place a strict quota system of 40% foreign players this will be adhered to, but will be circumvented; the quota does not prevent young players being brought to France at 16, joining academies and becoming French qualified after three years; also it cannot dictate what type of players the clubs choose to bring in. 40% of the squad means 250 foreign players available for selection. Added to this is the salary cap; in England it is £4 million, in Wales £3.5 million and in France the cap is the best part of £8 million. That means the best players can be attracted, the sort of players that can win a game.
The result is that some of the best French talent gets less and less game time, sit on the bench and watch as someone else does their job. Over 30 Southern Hemisphere players are on their way. All over the major clubs are trying desperately to secure the most influential players available. Perpignan after an unfamiliarly difficult season have recruited extensively – Charteris, Strokosch and Narraway will not have too much bother with the language or fitting in. Toulouse, the bastion of French rugby, have never been shy of importing talent they have not spent much yet. On the other hand they have followed the fashion of securing the services of a Georgian prop. 20 year old, Kakovin 6ft 4 and 23 stone will have a formidable physical presence for several years to come. But, what if you’re a young promising French tighthead prop. Where do you go and play?
So, as Saint André and his exhausted players leave for Argentina, his scope for making strategic changes, selecting new dynamic players and the future for French international rugby are very much in doubt. The outlook for France is plus ça change!