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Zut alors! Trent Robinson's greatest challenge in 2021

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Roar Guru
24th February, 2021
37

It isn’t wrestling back the title off those nomadic Stormers. It isn’t managing a salary cap consisting of Boyd Cordner, Luke Keary, James Tedesco and an inevitable late star signing.

The hardest task Easts coach Trent Robinson will face this year comes in October and November, as he tries to help the French national team into a respectable showing at the World Cup.

Appointed as director of rugby, his role involves assisting his former assistant-turned head coach, Laurent Frayssinous, from a more hands-off vantage. For one of only five countries home to a professional rugby league team, the first winners and founders of the tournament, reaching the quarter-finals should be a prerequisite.

But they haven’t finished in the top two of the group stages since 2000, and it is very plausible that the same fate befalls them once more.

It’s fair to say he’ll have his work cut out.

None of the NRL’s Pom contingent were out of nappies or their father’s sack the last time France beat an English/British side, while Samoa, complete with Origin-level players like Jarome Luai, Junior Paulo and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui would be very hard to dislodge.

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Tino Fa'asuamaleaui of the Storm is tackled

(Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

I have written previously about how we as fans shouldn’t discount international rugby league because of its eligibility rules.

But even I can admit these rules have the effect of devaluing the efforts of a nation like France, independent of heritage players.

For their efforts, they underwent defeat to a Lebanon side entirely populated by Australian-born players, decades after their 2000 debut, with no home-grown players or meaningful pathways to facilitate such a possibility.

All this chat, however, obfuscates the main division in the representative game: that between the northern and southern hemispheres. Rugby league, from grassroots to professional, is so much stronger under the Southern Cross than in the Old World.

The 2019 omnishambles Lions tour, and defeats to Tonga and Papua New Guinea demonstrate the relative power of Australia, Polynesia and Melanesia. If France is to England as Aotearoa-New Zealand is to Australia, then such hemispheric divergence does not bode well.

The aim should not be to lower international standards in the idea of fairness to the lowest common denominator, but rather to help raise the standards of established rugby league nations.

In this, Robinson can help.

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Robinson is a refreshing change from fly-in, fly-out coaches (cough, Wayne Bennett, cough), having committed himself time and again to French rugby league.

He is a fluent speaker, had coaching stints with Catalans and Toulouse over several years, and has taken his Roosters side to train in France with those squads when travelling to the UK for the World Club Challenge.

His victorious pedigree brings a dearth of experience and should impress a winning mentality and developmental cohesion. But the situation will need more than the coaching nous of one man.

Of course, a regular international calendar would help in securing financial commitment, but this requires assistance from les rosbifs.

England needs to commit to an annual international fixture, and work out exactly what the strategy is for the European Super League.

While the NRL made every effort to accommodate the Warriors, Catalans, despite being the only side with fans in attendance, had games cancelled and relocated, including two Challenge Cup ties and a Super League play-off.

Replacing Toronto with Leigh, a proud and historic club but situated within 12 miles of the two grand-finalists, in lieu of Toulouse, symbolises such short-term thinking.

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Taken by itself, adding more top-order French sides won’t solve the conundrum. Catalans’ failure to blood more local French talent is disappointing, but it needs to be seen in the context of a competition-wide preference for Aussie imports and seasoned veterans over risky youth prospects.

Whereas players that don’t make the cut at one club can often find new options at other clubs, often within the same district, the same cannot be said for the Perpignan outfit.

The entire manner in which the next generation is developed in the continent needs to be rethought and restructured to develop the highest number of players to their fullest potential.

I do take a bias in wishing French success. I’m a francophone (albeit immersed in québécois), so would have an easier time understanding rugby league discussion in Occitan/southern French than the patter of Yorkshire and Lancashire.

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But, as an Englishman, it’s sad to see our oldest rivals in such a state.

It’s my hope that they can reach a high enough quality, no longer underdogs, so that I can heartfully wish them defeat.