From pre-tournament favourites to finishing fourth; it’s been a miserable tournament for France. Their worst performance in the competition since they came fifth in 2001, it seems rash but the pressure is already on Phillipe Saint-André ahead of their two test tour of Argentina in June.
The lack of preparation time between the new head coach and his squad was evident in this first match against Italy, where although in the end France racked up 30 points their combinations looked out of sorts and cohesions between new groups of players such as François Trinh-Duc and Wesley Fofana failed to connect. That being said, all it took was two touches of class from Fofana and Julien Malzieu to see them through. The assumption was that France were merely comfortable and didn’t need to step up into top gear.
The cancelling of the second week’s fixture against Ireland a week later in hindsight appears to be a blessing. Against a spirited Scotland side the façade continued, failing to play excellently but putting enough points on the scoreboard to come away two wins from two and on track for the Grand Slam. It was only when Ireland, specifically Tommy Bowe, exposed France’s poor tactics going forward that they showed a reaction.
Disappointed with how his side had fallen apart in the first half against Ireland, the radical tactical overhaul brought in against England appeared to show a lack of faith from Saint-André in his squad, as he reverted back to the game plan that brought him so much success at Sale. By playing narrower and using the boots of Julien Dupuy and Lionel Beauxis, France were meant to become more direct. Yet their new blitz defence was horribly exposed, their missed tackles not helping proceedings either as England kept in front. If Trinh-Duc’s drop goal had sailed over, what a different story it might have been.
With the championship out of sight, then Saint-André dramatically chopped and changed his squad for Wales in Cardiff, where even though they lost France put in their best performance of the tournament, Alex Cuthbert’s try the decisive score.
The downward slope of France’s tournament is as confusing as their tactical approach. Julien Malzieu and Vincent Clerc were anonymous throughout, but only because of the emphasis on running the ball up the middle through Rougerie and the back row. Speaking of Rougerie, after excelling at last year’s Rugby World Cup (the eye-gouging incident aside), for the first time he has genuinely looked like a winger out of position.
The merry-go-round at half-back, which saw four different combinations, meant that any form of consistency was going to be impossible. Dupuy was atrocious against England, Beauxis so focused on drilling the ball long that he starved his own side of possession. Up front, Harinordoquy looked old whilst the eldest player in the squad William Servat should have started. No coach has made it more apparent about the need for tactical clarification and consistency than Stuart Lancaster, whose excellence has made the ‘experienced’ Saint-André appear all the more out of his depth.
There are three positives however that France can take away from the 2012 Six Nations. The first is that their lineout has been nearly perfect, losing under 10 throughout the whole tournament. Next, Thierry Dusautoir was outstanding and completely underrated once again. His 25 tackles against Scotland were astonishing. Finally, in Wesley Fofana they have a gem of an inside centre, who on finishing with four tries in his debut season should be immensely proud of his achievement. What’s more, he was nowhere near his best. There is plenty more to come.
Argentina this summer could prove to be the making of this new French side. Although consistency is such an alien concept to Les Bleus, without it they will not progress.
by Ben Coles