Trust the French to blow everyone’s predictions out of the water. This was expected to be the most unpredictable of Six Nations where the only likelihood was that there would be no Grand Slam. But trying to predict the France rugby team is rather akin to trying to predict where Tiger Woods will be spending his Saturday night. It has become a cliché to say that it is a cliché to say that you never know which French team will turn up.
Turn up they most certainly have in the tournament to date. Granted they have only turned up for half a game at a time but it has been more than enough to see off Scotland, Ireland and Wales. From the moment Marc Lievremont announced his side for the opening game, the intent to play a direct, abrasive, physical game has been clear. This, allied to the traditional pace, skill and flair which the French cannot help but bring when their tails are up, has produced a level of performance with which their rivals have been unable to live.
Their success, as with many of the most successful teams in the modern era, has been built upon a largely impenetrable defence. Their stifling, smothering blitz defence has squeezed the life out of attack after attack, often some yards back from their origin. Wales’s much-vaunted blitz defence was made to look pedestrian when compared to its French counterpart. Dave Ellis, the France defence coach who hails from similar rugby league stock to Shaun Edwards, must take a great deal of credit, not least because the central element to a successful defensive structure is discipline, something not always readily associated with France.
The habit of taking the foot off the pedal when the game is all but won has meant that the scorelines do not fully record their dominance. A more telling statistic is that they have won the first half of the 3 games by a cumulative margin of 52-9 and six tries to nil. It is hard to argue with that.
Only then have they let up. French supporters must be frustrated by their lack of ruthlessness in the second half of matches but they can have no qualms about the way their side has played in the key passages. The only occasion on which they have been under any real pressure was when a resurgent Wales closed to within a score. But, even with a man in the sin bin, they reasserted their dominance with the minimum of fuss, systematically and efficiently crushing Welsh hopes as soon as they had surfaced. Systematic and efficient – not words you generally apply to the French rugby team but one which certainly applies to this vintage.
There is little sense though that the current success is the fruition of a grand plan, the continuation of a narrative of gradual improvement with the aim of peaking at the World Cup. Marc Lievremont’s selection policy over the past couple of years has been unpredictable at best, downright schizophrenic at worst. If you are a French player playing in the Top 14 and have not been selected for the national team under Lievremont then you are in something of a minority and might as well give up.
This inconsistency of selection has manifested itself in their performances during this period. In the summer they defeated New Zealand in the first test at Carisbrook and only narrowly lost the second test. They followed that with a meek surrender to the Wallabies and in the autumn they followed a decent win against the Springboks with an abject 12-39 surrender to the same All Blacks they had troubled so much in the summer.
Impressive though they have been in the championship, their current form may stem as much from accident as design such has been the haphazard, trial and error approach of the Lievremont regime. Players such as Maxime Medard and Cedric Heymans, so central to the summer success, have been discarded and who is to say that the current players will not suffer the same fate when the next round of internationals arrives.
But there is evidence that, again whether by accident or design, Lievremont has finally settled on a set of core players.
The perennial French problem position of fly half has been filled for the majority of the last year by Francois Trinh-Duc and, while some may have their reservations, he has grown into the role. France have always had a surplus of outstanding scrum halves and currently boast Morgan Parra, Julien Dupuy, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Dimitri Yachvili and Frederic Michalak, quite an embarrassment of riches. With Imanol Harinordiquy outstanding at 8 and both William Servat and Dimitri Szarzewski accomplished at hooker, the spine of the team is in good shape. Graft on to that the impact of Mathieu Bastereaud, the mercurial skills of Clement Poitrenaud and the solidity of Yannick Jauzion, not to mention the ferocity and technical excellence of a front row who have decimated all-comers this year, and you have the makings of quite some outfit.
But nobody should get carried away just yet. Although they may have been forced into it by the French themselves, none of the Celtic nations will have been remotely satisfied with their performances. And while you would not know it on the evidence of the championship thus far, the biggest test will be against England. While the English may be technically pretty average and largely devoid of cutting edge, they are rarely found wanting physically and playing the French seems to do something to them. The French meanwhile are aware that their record against England in big games is poor. That fixture should be one hell of a scrap which will tell us plenty about whether this French team are genuine world class contenders.
Before then they take on an improved Italy team who have caused plenty of head-scratching among their opponents thus far. They have only conceded 3 tries in their 3 games and France will have to be patient but they should have far too much in their armoury for the Azzurri.
Even if France do win the Grand Slam, they will need to provide more evidence that they are realistic contenders for the World Cup in autumn 2011. As ever they can beat the best on their day but, as their results in the summer and autumn showed, when their day comes is anybody’s guess. Only when they achieve consistency in performance and selection through consecutive international windows can we really start building up their long-term prospects.
But that is for the summer. Now only Italy and England stand between them and a 3rd Grand Slam in 9 years. Those who put their money on no Grand Slam being won must be sorely tempted to rethink. But we know from ample experience that trying to predict the French is a mug’s game.
By Stuart Peel