The Eccentricity of Mad Bernie

As the mass exit of head coaches from the leading international teams gathers pace, the contribution and success of one of them remains very hard to assess.

Bernard Laporte moves into his country’s cabinet after a reign as head coach which has been punctuated by the always unusual, the occasionally brilliant and the frequently crackpot. During it, he attempted to reverse a hundred years of history in the way the French approach their rugby, with the unarguable reasoning that if some discipline could be grafted on to the wealth of talent which France habitually produces, they could dominate the rugby landscape.

So was he successful in changing the way the French play the game? The fact that they now regularly finish matches with 15 men on the field, and only very rarely have players banned for eye-gouging, biting and scrotal-tearing, suggests that he was. The fact that France no longer throw the ball around with gay abandon, run it from everywhere and hang the consequences would indicate likewise. But are France any more successful or any less infuriating? The answer to this is a resounding no.

I never thought it possible (and this may seem rich coming from an Englishman), but in recent times watching France has become something of a chore. Journalists regularly trot out the easy cliché that France are either irresistibly brilliant or awful but this is no longer the case. France now are either irresistibly efficient or awful. It is a long time since France really turned on the style and tore the opposition to shreds with a torrent of slick handling and outrageous running lines like they did so often in the past. Yet they do still sometimes fail to turn up completely.

Laporte imposed rigid tactics upon his team in an attempt to curb the maddening inconsistency of which they were so often guilty. His logic was that the character trait which led France to possess such flair and grace on some occasions was the same one which caused them to collapse in an angry, brooding, incompetent heap on others. He therefore attempted to remove both of them and adopt a more English approach (France try to be England; England try to be Australia; Australia try to be New Zealand – that is rugby’s food chain).

What he failed to appreciate (and this is something England may finally have worked out in the past fortnight) is that the way a team plays is rooted in their national character. Rugby is such an expressive game that it, more than any other, can be a reflection of an entire country. Laporte tried to turn against this and managed to negate France’s assets but could not address their dark side. It is much easier to follow instructions and carry out a plan when things are going well but as soon as they turn against you, human instinct is to revert to type. Therefore, France could be an irresistibly efficient team or could mentally fall apart.

This World Cup has seen France in both guises. They turned in a display against Ireland of such professionalism that Laporte was probably purring with satisfaction. But against both Argentina and England, they singularly failed to show up. In the past when things were going wrong France would have chanced their arm – sometimes it came off, sometimes it did not. This time round, shackled by a restrictive gameplan which appeared to revolve around aimless kicking, they offered nothing because they have simply not been allowed to play that way.

Even in their wonderful victory against New Zealand, they did very little for 40 minutes and only came into the game when the criminally arrogant All Blacks had decided that they had won the game and did not need to bother anymore. Laporte’s reign has been bookended by 2 extraordinary victories in World Cup knockout games against New Zealand (the first shortly before he took over) but the difference in the manner of the triumphs was stark.

France’s fortunes have also not been helped by some of the extraordinary selections made by their coach. Frederick Michelak is completely mistrusted, starting behind David Skrela only to simultaneously displace him but be leapfrogged by Lionel Beauxis. Basically Laporte would rather start anyone at fly half apart than his most gifted, exciting player – would any previous French coach have even considered that? Throughout the team his selections were defined by their conservatism. Bonnaire instead of Harinordiquy or Chabal; until recently Yachvili or Mignoni instead of the vastly superior Ellisalde; anyone instead of Clement Poitrenaud. Any player with free spirit was consigned to the bench as an ‘ideal impact player’.

Laporte’s conservatism, muddled thinking and bizarre selections all came together in one inglorious catastrophe in the World Cup knock out stages. Having failed to learn the importance of a specialist full back after the Cedric Heymans fiasco against Argentina, Laporte moved one of his finest players into a position in which he had never played a game of senior rugby. Damien Traille is a centre with every attribute you could ask for; power, pace, soft hands and an excellent rugby brain. Laporte put him at full back with express instructions to shoe the ball as far down the pitch as he could every time he laid his hands on it. In doing this, he completely negated all that is good about Traille. The blame for England’s early try lies squarely at the door of the Head Coach.

This was not the only unfathomable tactical blunder in the semi finals. The sight of a French fly half attempting 55 metre drop goals after 10 minutes beggared belief and was clearly something which had been calculated on the training ground. How England’s spirits must have risen when they realised that France were not going to bother using their backs at all, despite it being the one area in which they had a clear advantage. From that moment until the introduction of Michelak, they offered nothing penetrative at all.

There were times in the early part of this decade when France appeared to be building something great. Their record in the Six Nations under Laporte is excellent and they have reached the semi finals in the last two World Cups. On paper then Laporte has been pretty successful. But this is a hugely talented generation of French rugby players, many of whom still have some years in them I cannot wait to see them let off the leash and given licence to express themselves. Against England they gave one of the most limited, one-dimensional performances I have ever seen from France and they are simply better than that. His reign started with such promise but in the end, Laporte’s eccentricity has taken France backwards.

By Stuart Peel