Will it be all blue for France this Autumn?
A few weeks ago, I was informed by somebody that Marc Lievremont had expressed an intention to mimic the brand of rugby played by the All Blacks. It was therefore with great excitement that I awaited the unleashing of Lievremont’s first side for the Autumn series versus Fiji.
Unsurprisingly, I was most unsurprised with the Lievremont brand of conservatism.
I’ve long been of the opinion that French rugby under Lievremont has more in common with South African rugby of the 2009 era, and I think this first selection confirms that. Granted the side has been hit with a raft of injuries (Trinh-Duc, Servat, Servat, Szarzewski and Wisniewski, himself an injury replacement), but with there being 14 domestic teams there should always be an alternative, and I don’t feel Lievremont has fully exercised the alternate options.
Significantly, I also feel that he is not embracing the effects of the current law interpretations.
The odd thing is that France has some wonderfully talented players to call upon, and yet it seems that Lievremont is still so attached to the equally conservative Laporte era.
Jerome Schuster gets a debut start at loosehead, and Luc Ducalon starts at tighthead (his second cap but first start). Guilhem Guirado holds down the middle. The positive news is that Guirado is a combative, fiesty and mobile hooker who has, on occasion, played in the back row.
He also forms a club partnership with Schuster.
The bad news is that Schuster and Ducalcon are basically meatheads, to coin an unpleasant phase. Ducalcon, a strong scrummager, makes John Smit look svelte. Neither are notably bad handlers of the ball, but then neither seem equipped to make the necessary athletic impact at Test level.
All front rows have that balance, but this front row seems too err too strongly on the side of the set-piece.
The locks are equally heavy duty as the props: Romain Millo-Chluski has been an inconsistent selection during Leivremont’s reign, but he and Jerome Thion, a late injury call-up, are much of a muchness. Both are big men, both are basically 4 locks and both are set-piece merchants.
If you examine most tight fives currently playing Test rugby, they seem selected to carry the ball, hit rucks and support other ball carriers.
This tight five seems set to rumble from one set-piece to another.
The back row looks vibrant, dynamic and powerful. Imanol Harinordoquy captains the side, and with his clubmate Thion playing at 5, and with his other team mates Yachvili and Traille playing at 9 and 10 there is a strong Basque spine to the club. With Harinordoquy and Ouedraogo, packing down on the blindside (but really the openside) the lineout should be offensively fluid and defensively challenging.
The youthful Alexander Lapandry finalises the trio.
The back row is the one truly strong unit of the France 22. Although none of the starters are over the ball players they have all played in different positions in the back row, and are all very athletic and excellent support players. Harinordoquy and Ouedraogo also carry the ball well, and run good lines.
They are technically very competent.
Lapandry isn’t a regular for his team, Clermont, but he has long been perceived as the coming man. Lapandry is slightly willowy, and is another solid lineout player, but he doesn’t offer a huge presence on the field, in terms of his tackling, slowing down the ball or carrying the ball.
To that extent the back row lacks a real big man in the mould of Picamoles.
All three are slightly too similar.
The 9-10 channel looks one-dimensional with the selection of the French Frans Steyn at 10, Damien Traille. Traille has a massive boot, an occasional fear of tackling, and a good off-load.
However, he is not a 10, just like he was never a 15, although I suppose this is less of an issue given that Yachvili likes to play at first receiver and control a side. To that extent we may see Traille taking the ball to the line more. Conversely, we may see Yachvili and Traille putting up huge punts for the pack to rumble on to.
Either way, repeated crash balls or big kicks aren’t currently in sync with contemporary Test rugby.
The centre pairing is interesting: David Marty retains his place and Fabrice Estebanez debuts. Estebanez is gathering media interest in France due to the fact that he played XIII (or rugby league). He is a big physical man and can off-load, but he isn’t in the same class as Traille as a 12, and his club, Brive, isn’t performing particularly well in the league.
His selection hints at an all too predictable attack – big pack, big kickers and big 10 and 12, however if Marty can play off Estabanez then France should find they make good ground. That said, the passing ability of Estebanez and Marty is not spectacularly high, which makes me wonder how much ball the back three will receive?
The back three picks itself to an extent; Rougerie is playing more and more rugby at 13 these days, and Malzieu hasn’t improved his technical faults since his debut Test season. Maxime Medard is top scorer in the Top 14 (by a whole 2 tries) and Julian Arias is playing well in an energised Stade Francais side.
Jerome Porical isn’t the most exciting of full backs, but he is a sharp shooter kicker – but then so is Yachvili. It is also worth noting that the French back three is comparatively slight in stature, and whilst Medard and Arias will want to attack the opposition Porical is generally more reluctant.
The bench looks more imposing, with Domingo, Pierre and Chabal able to come on and inject some aggression and urgency into proceedings, with Morgan Parra also able to provide nous and direction at either 9 or 10.
All things considered I find it a shame that Lievremont has opted for this side. France has some excellent rugby players who could flourish under the new law interpretations, and yet we have a mix-mash of big, stodgy forwards, a slow 10-12 channel and a back three that also seems to lack balance.
Lievremont has often been accused of being a confused leader, and I think this selection highlights his faults. Granted there are injuries, but then why revert to this sort of line-up when most other Test sides are leaning toward dynamic and all-inclusive rugby?
Perhaps Lievremont thinks the pack will pummel the Fijians, and the big midfield will wear down the inside Fijian defence, but where is the long-term thinking in that?
Whatever happens these coming weeks are very, very significant for French rugby, and how they respond from the summer humiliation.
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