France may have Les Bleus but all is not lost

Six tries conceded in the second half, a record defeat at home, and resounding boos as they left the field. France have suffered some embarrassing defeats in recent times; the demolition at Twickenham in 2009 by England, and over the summer when they were thrashed 40-10 by Argentina, but both of those were away from home. This was not just a new low for Marc Lievremont and his men, but a humiliation.

In a way though, the timing of this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whilst France have less than a year to go to the World Cup, this has been the perfect wake up call. Along with the likes of New Zealand and South Africa, France have wonderful strength in depth. Just taking a second to name some of the players who were not part of the match-day squad against Australia, you have Freddie Michalak, Imanol Harinodoquy, Fabian Barcella (injured), Vincent Clerc, Clement Poitrenaud, Mathieu Bastareaud and David Skrela to name but a few. Those are all top level international players who any side would be keen to have amongst their ranks, so why discard them?

The French selection policy has been nothing short of astounding over recent years, and much like when England fielded a side this time last year featuring the likes of Ayoola Erinle, Ugo Monye at full back and Duncan Bell, France have become prone to throwing in surprising selections, with players not often up to the standard of International rugby. The wing is one particular area where Lievremont is either deeply confused or desperate to find the right player, as over the past few years Marc Andreu, Maxime Medard, Alexis Palisson, Benjamin Fall, Julian Arias and now Yoann Huget have all made their debuts, and that’s before considering Aurelien Rougerie, Clerc, Julien Malzieu, Cedric Heymans and many more.

Rather than focus on what has gone wrong for France, I want to examine how the coaching staff can rectify this situation before the World Cup. Time and time again it is proved that consistency is the best way of forming a quality international rugby side. The past two World Cup winning sides, England in 2003 and South Africa in 2007, are perfect examples of this. France’s depth of quality is such a great asset to have, but it is being completely misused.

The Six Nations gives Lievremont in the first two games an opportunity to experiment; the end result of a Six Nations for me personally is not important in a World Cup year, regardless of the momentum winning it may give you, it is a chance to establish your first XV. If I was in Lievremont’s shoes, I would play an experimental side against Italy, play pretty much a full choice starting XV against Scotland and one of Wales or Ireland, with then my best team out against England and the other one of the Welsh or the Irish sides. This way, you not only build a solid match-day 22, but you find out who is good enough as a back up to your best player in each position, and who is clearly not up to the task.

With this in mind, here is my first choice France side for the 2011 World Cup:

1. Barcella, 2. Servat, 3. Mas, 4. Chabal, 5. Nallet, 6. Bonnaire, 7. Dusautoir (c), 8. Harinordoquy, 9. Parra, 10. Skrela, 11. Heymans, 12. Jauzion, 13. Bastareaud, 14. Andreu, 15. Poitrenaud.

There is a good balance of experience and youth, a solid scrum and good lineout options, plus the great boots of Parra and Skrela. Add to this the pace of Andreu and Heymans out wide, and you have a side that can beat anyone in the world. France may be feeling at rock bottom right now, but don’t be surprised if they find their feet and once again shock the world in New Zealand next year.

by Ben Coles