The World Cup semi-finals roll out this weekend, and France will not be a part of them. This has only happened once before, in 1991. Incidentally, the Wallabies became World Champions at the end of that tournament. But I digress.
It’s astonishing how consistent France have been at World Cups. Funnily enough, before last weekend’s ouster at the hands of New Zealand, their record of reaching semi-finals at World Cups was bettered only by their vanquishers at Cardiff (the Wallabies and Springboks had failed to reach the semis twice, England thrice).
France have reached three finals, which is also a record, albeit one that looks set to be broken (unless we see a South Africa versus Argentina final).
Clearly, France are a venerable rugby nation. Their fans love their rugby, and over the years, Les Bleus have provided us with many cherished moments, scoring some scintillating tries that earned their play the epithet of ‘French flair’.
Unfortunately, this French flair seems dead today, and it was particularly galling to see the coup de grace delivered this past weekend with plays that were normally associated with French teams of yesteryear. France have gone from a team that would not be afraid to take on the All Blacks to a team that struggles to grind out a victory against Scotland.
And how sad it was that the man who oversaw these last few shambolic years was one of French rugby’s greatest sons – Philippe Saint-Andre. He was a swashbuckling winger in the ’90s, and is France’s third-highest try scorer, with 32 Test tries.
Unfortunately, his reputation has been marred by his spell as head coach of the national team, a spell that was nothing short of disastrous.
France reached the World Cup final in 2011, so expectations were naturally high for the 2012 Six Nations. Although most pundits exercised caution, citing French unpredictability, Les Bleus had been Grand Slam winners just two seasons prior to that.
What followed was an underwhelming six weeks of rugby, with victories over Italy and Scotland followed by a draw against Ireland, in a match that was postponed by a week, and defeats to England and Wales – the latter being the kind of tame performance that would characterise Saint-Andre’s tenure.
This was the routine for France over the last four years, as they finished fourth in three out of four Six Nations, while 2013 was even more ignominious as they won the wooden spoon.
Ireland also finished joint bottom in that year’s tournament, but oh how contrasting have their fortunes been in the two years since.
The records speak for themselves – Saint-Andre failed to register a single victory against Wales or Ireland. Not one. Wales have beaten them four times in a row, a feat that hasn’t been achieved for a long time. Ireland’s winning streak stands at three, while two draws preceded that. These were teams that couldn’t buy a win against France before, and now the tables have turned almost entirely.
France have only beaten England once, got four hard-fought wins over Scotland, plus one defeat to Italy for good measure. Two home wins over Australia stand out, but those were sadly false dawns. No victories over New Zealand or South Africa, while against Argentina their win percentage stands at 50 per cent.
Overall Saint-Andre managed to win only 20 of 45 Test matches. Hard to swallow for a French fan.
However, France’s problems were evident before Saint-Andre. Marc Lievremont took the French coaching job in 2007 and enjoyed one purple patch in 2009-10 which included wins over New Zealand in New Zealand (the last time that’s ever occurred), a victory over the Tri-Nations champions South Africa, and the aforementioned Six Nations Grand Slam.
What followed was a 59-16 defeat to Australia in late 2010, an uninspired defence of their Six Nations crown in 2011 which included a defeat to Italy, and a World Cup defeat to Tonga followed by a player revolt.
That they managed to reach the final and nearly win it was testament to the fortitude of the players they had at that time, the likes of William Servat, Julien Bonnaire and Imanol Harinordoquy, not to forget captain Thierry Dusautoir.
So what has caused this rapid decline in the fortunes of Les Bleus?
First things first, Saint-Andre was woefully out of his depth, let’s get that out of the way. His team selections were odd, he detested playing Francois Trinh-Duc for some reason, selecting a whole host of inept fly-halves, along with repeatedly keeping the faith with Freddie Michalak even though Michalak hadn’t really done anything to earn his trust.
He also only had one style of play – bash it up. Remember when I said French flair is dead? This could be summed up in two words: Mathieu Bastareaud. Now, the Toulon outside centre is actually a pretty skilful player, but France’s preoccupation with physicality blunted the other aspects of his play, and also restricted his inside partner Wesley Fofana, a truly outstanding talent, from fully flourishing.
There was so much talk about French unpredictability, but the truth is that France have turned into the most one-dimensional and predictable team in world rugby. Their last two defeats – against Ireland and New Zealand – were always coming, and anyone who thought that they could win either of those two matches had either not followed France for the last four years, or were delusional.
Plus, somewhat worryingly, it seemed that this group of players couldn’t care less. For many of these last four Six Nations campaigns, France have looked devoid of hunger and passion. On the few occasions they have attempted to channel their inner passion and love for the jersey, any semblance of a gameplan flew out the window – especially their defensive discipline. The Six Nations finale against Ireland in 2014 and last weekend’s quarter-final are but two examples of France playing with passion but no plan. Headless chickens – or should I say roosters?
Is it that France just don’t have the personnel any more? Out of the team that started against New Zealand, how many could truly be classified as world-class players? Among the backs, perhaps Fofana, maybe Morgan Parra a few years ago, maybe Bastareaud but that’s debatable. I really like Brice Dulin, and he was okay against the All Blacks, but when I suggested that on a French Facebook post, somebody commented, “c’etait une blague, non?”
Among the forwards, only Louis Picamoles and Thierry Dusautoir could be classified as world class – but Dusautoir, like Dmitri Szarzewski and Nicolas Mas, is a relic from a bygone era, the last monument of the French heyday.
Another thing that should be noted is the decline of Stade Toulousain. Once a French superpower, Toulouse hold the record for the most European Cups, along with the most French Championships. However, of late they have barely threatened to add to their massive trophy cabinet, and their representation in the French national team (they used to provide most of the starting XV once) has dwindled correspondingly. Now their long-serving head coach, Guy Noves, has been appointed as coach of the national team. Go figure.
But let’s address the elephant in the room – the Top 14. The domestic league’s growth in the last few years, especially the influx of foreign players, has been a contributor to the national team’s decline. The galactico squads of Racing, Stade Francais, and especially Toulon have not only suppressed the French players in the league, but also suppressed the national team as a whole. Why would you, as a club owner, invest in local youth if you can just wave a wad of cash at an ageing superstar looking for one last payday?
It has resulted in several players becoming naturalised Frenchmen and donning the French jersey. The morals of this I shall not get into, but it is clear that the results have been less than extraordinary. Again, what can you do as a coach if the best halfback in your country is a foreigner? Just select him. But what if the said halfback is actually average when compared to world standards? You can’t do anything, because there isn’t any alternative, since local talent just isn’t being allowed to flourish.
There is a discord between the clubs and the national team. The clubs obviously work in their own interest, and don’t care a tuppence about Les Bleus, and the FFR cannot really do a thing about it. The national team, and its supporters, have to suffer the consequences. It is a plight not unheard of – as across the Channel, the English Premier League is becoming a similar problem for England’s national football team.
This sort of disunity does not occur in the southern hemisphere, as the Super Rugby franchises work in cooperation with the respective national rugby unions. This year, each of the Super Rugby sides rested their international players at times in the season to avoid risking burnout, while over in England, English internationals are playing in the premiership just two weeks after being knocked out of the World Cup.
Plus, the European rugby season is long and gruelling. Saint-Andre made this point too, after the defeat, citing the long season as one of the factors in their defeat. Super Rugby lasts only 16 regular-season matches, plus three finals at the most. A French Top 14 team could play as many as 40 matches in a season, including European commitments. The contrast in results between the respective national teams are there for all to see.
So is there a way up for French rugby? On the face of things, the road to recovery seems long and painful, as France’s problems are more deep seated than others, and there isn’t really a quick fix. There just aren’t enough world-class players to keep the French afloat. I can’t see them snapping their losing run against either Wales or Ireland next season, but at least they won’t have a coach who is out of his depth like the last one.
Noves is an incredibly experienced coach, with considerable tactical acumen, and the only fear I have is that these last few seasons with Toulouse aren’t indicative of the fact that he’s lost his mojo. He may steady the ship, but to make the French the kings rugby again, he needs time, and a lot of things to go his way.
As an admirer of French rugby, one can only hope that the French return to their halcyon days sooner or later, because world rugby needs that bit of Gallic flair that has been so invisible for the past few years.