France searching for that perfect balance

It says something about the pre-tournament favourites when they are more than capable of self-combusting and finishing in mid-table mediocrity. For all their faults, France remain widely tipped to finish top of the pile in this year’s RBS Six Nations but, as is so often the case with Les Bleus, nothing is guaranteed.

Lievremont has had some unusual selection policies

They travel to Murrayfield for their opening match on Sunday in conflicting circumstances. For only the second time, four French teams have progressed to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals but as club rugby has flourished, the national team has lacked consistency.

After the euphoria of winning in New Zealand for the first time since 1994 and beating South Africa in the autumn, France were humiliated by Dan Carter and co as the All Blacks ran riot in Marseille.

It’s this inconsistency which continues to plague the French. But hasn’t it always?

In the 1999 Rugby World Cup, France upset the apple cart by winning an epic semi-final against a New Zealand side largely expected to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy. But they were unable to repeat their stunning display of pure running rugby in the final, going down 35-12 to Australia.

And four years later they suffered a similar fate. After destroying Ireland in the last eight, they disappeared in the semi-final as England prevailed courtesy of 24 points from the boot of Jonny Wilkinson.

While their potential is frightening, their lack of consistency is just as scary. The last 12 months have highlighted this contradiction perfectly and head coach Marc Lievremont has a difficult task of curtailing the inconsistency without inhibiting the unpredictable flair.

Although it has become something of a cliche, throughout rugby history, France have been blessed with individual genius – pure flair and invention.

One man, a small winger nicknamed “missile” who infamously ran the All Blacks ragged at Twickenham over a decade ago, is a classic example.

At 5ft 7in, Christophe Dominici was hardly the most imposing physical specimen, but his innate talent to exhilarate crowds with free flowing rugby epitomised the Pierre Villepreux / Jean-Claude Skrela era of improvisation.

When Bernard Laporte took over at the end of 1999 his first game in charge ended in a 36-3 victory over Wales and France ended up winning three matches to finish second behind England in the 2000 Six Nations.

And Dominici, at the time, was quick to point out the new coach did not try to change a nation’s natural instincts.

“We all know what the Latin temperament is about: you don’t concentrate much, you’re lethargic and you rely on natural talents,” he said.

“What Bernard has done is make everybody aware of their responsibilities, that way we all have a role to play within the team.”

Lievremont take note. The former Biarritz flanker has overseen 21 Tests, winning 11 and losing 10 since his appointment after the 2007 World Cup.

Perhaps his latest squad is the clearest indication yet of his intentions to employ a more pragmatic, structured approach after beginning his tenure with high risk, high reward rugby.

The omissions of Cedric Heymans, Fredric Michalak, Maxine Medard and Florian Fritz provide a telling statement of purpose while the inclusion of Mathieu Bastareaud, Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu emphasise the shift towards physicality.

A balance must be struck if France are to fulfil their undoubted talent – percentage rugby and audacious rugby in equal measure. Get it right and France will justify their favourites tag; get it wrong and Lievremont’s men will once again be left wondering and the head coach’s position may be under threat.

By Tom Walker