The abbreviated Rugby Championship starts this weekend, Argentina host New Zealand in what is set to be a very tantalising match-up in Buenos Aires.
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but French rugby is still ill with under-performing players, disciplinary issues off the field and an administrative structure as sturdy as a soggy pain au chocolat.
Teddy Thomas’ Six Nations campaign best illustrates this perma-state of chaos. The French toast of the team after his scintillating try-scoring heroics against Ireland and Scotland, his valiant efforts were ultimately futile as not only did France lose both of those matches but a large chunk of the team (including Thomas) then decided to acquaint themselves with the Scottish capital’s assorted watering holes, discotheques and aggressive, punchy locals late on a Sunday night.
The players’ hilarious excuses that facial bruises not prevalent after the match, but mysteriously ubiquitous on the flight home the next day, resulted from collisions with furniture in their hotel rooms did not wash with coach Jacques Brunel, and the offending parties were swiftly dropped for the annual training session with Italy in Marseille.
This sitcom-esque sequence of events all occurred in the space of three weeks, but is very much a microcosm of French rugby post-2010, where a deep-seated malaise appears to have set in and persisted ever since.
Even the minor miracle of nearly winning the 2011 World Cup Final against New Zealand was played out against the backdrop of a player mutiny against their coach, and since then they have barely registered a single noteworthy on-field achievement.
Naturally, it takes the looming presence of England for the 104th edition of Le Crunch to focus French minds, what with all those conquests, wars, alliances, jokes about food and hygiene, the introduction of binge-drinking and the inherent comedy of the English-French language barrier serving as motivation.
Loathe as I am to say this (while secretly revelling in it), you don’t know which French team will turn up this Saturday, as not only do they not have a full complement of players available, but the wobble the English experienced in Edinburgh two weeks ago has left the faintest scent of blood in the water, something which France will either take full advantage of or fail at spectacularly.
There is rarely a middle ground for them.
The French club-versus-country debate has been analysed to death over the past few years (in my opinion the current model is wholly unsustainable and damaging), but the fact that most players in the France squad were playing with their clubs this past weekend gives an indication as to where the power still lays, with the players wishes, health and priorities a distant afterthought.
Lastly, as someone who easily falls for the sporting cult figure, Mathieu Bastareaud’s new lease of life under Brunel is a joyous sight to behold, with rumour crediting this upturn in form to a new and improved diet of just the 13 croissants and one bottle of wine a day now being consumed, down from normal levels.
The soulless Stade de France is no fortress (and its location makes Homebush seem like the Maldives), but they say barbarism begins at home, and this lackadaisical, raw and talented French team need to fire up for this clash, otherwise, they’ll continue to go nowhere fast.