Having said after France’s loss to Wales that he wouldn’t make any excuses for his side’s abysmal performance, France head coach Phillipe Saint-André proceeded to do exactly that. The trouble with the French national side, he claimed, is that the Top 14 is stuffed full of foreigners – meaning that home-grown talent doesn’t get regular top flight rugby. Given the performances we know they are capable of, France ought to be a dominant force in world rugby. Whilst the influx of overseas players into their professional league certainly isn’t ideal, it can’t be blamed for their lacklustre start to the 6 Nations. If fingers are to be pointed, they should be directed at Saint-André himself.
There is more than enough talent in the French squad to put together a fearsomely competitive team, but so far the selection and playing philosophy have been totally wrong. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as the same thing happened whilst Saint-André was in charge of Toulon. The club’s wealthy owner spent eye-watering amounts of money assembling what is on paper one of the strongest squads in the history of everything. However, despite having the glut of talent available to him, Saint-André failed to make anything particularly exciting happen with it. Zero trophies, European or domestic. Sure, they made last year’s Top 14 final, but that was the result of a season-long war of attrition, rather than anything remarkable happening on the rugby pitch.
Toulon were a bludgeon under Saint-André, looking to batter and bully sides – very reminiscent of old (useless) English sides. Now that he’s in charge of the national side, it looks as though they’re going the same way. This is quite upsetting for rugby lovers worldwide, as everyone knows the traditional French weapon of choice is the rapier. As they showed against Australia and Argentina in the autumn, these French players are capable of so much more. What can Saint-André do to make sure that those results don’t go down as blips in an otherwise mediocre season? Here are a few tips:
No more half-baked half-backs. Morgan Parra must come into the side. Widely regarded as one of the best in the world in his position, Parra is the ‘petite general’ France need to marshal their troops. His excellent goal-kicking would be valuable, too. Freddie Michalak did fairly well in the Autumn, but since then he has been plying his trade at 9 for Toulon. Time to give Trinc-Duc a go.
Put the centre in the centre. Fofana has been sensational for Clermont Auvergne at 12 – blistering acceleration, fantastic feet and ridiculous running angles make him a deadly strike weapon. Mermoz has been dropped from France’s latest training squads, which suggests the rugby gods may get what they’re asking for: A Fofana – Bastereaud midfield sandwich. Oomph.
Vive la France. Give the French license to play the French way, not like some stodgy old English premiership side. Clermont should be the template. They up the tempo in waves, building and building until it’s an avalanche of attack. Recycle the ball quickly, whether it’s through an offload or rapid rucking. Against Wales France were pedestrian at best.
If they get all this right, France could yet salvage their season. If Saint-André gets his selection right, and decides to let his side play with a bit more va-va-voom, England could be in for a tough afternoon at Twickers. This is France, who knows what could happen?