By Gavin Mortimer
IT TOOK only 80 minutes but Philippe Saint-André once more finds himself with the world on his shoulders. Two victories from their first two matches in this Six Nations went some way towards banishing memories of France’s disastrous 2013 but their capitulation against Wales on Friday has exposed the failings of this French side.
The man fingered by PSA as the fall guy for France’s record 27-6 defeat in Cardiff is No 8 Louis Picamoles. That’s the Louis Picamoles who in the previous game against Italy had been France’s standout performer. It wasn’t the yellow card that the big man was shown in the second-half that enraged PSA, rather Picamoles’s reaction as he trudged towards the touchline. A sarcastic round of applause aimed at referee Alain Rolland has cost Picamoles his place in the side.
“Respect is the foundation of our values,” declared PSA on Monday evening, shortly after announcing his 30-man squad for the match in Edinburgh on Saturday week. “It is important to send a signal to all of the players and remind them that having the privilege of wearing the France jersey demands certain duties and obligations.”
It’s all a bit heavy-handed, haughty even, particularly given that for the past few months the clubs and the federation have been fighting like rats in a sack for control of the game in France. Picamoles, justifiably, felt aggrieved for being sent to the sin-bin for failing to roll away from the tackle when he was trapped at the bottom of a ruck. He shouldn’t have made the gesture, but who among us hasn’t let our emotions get the better of us in the heat of the moment? A dressing down from PSA the next day should have sufficed.
No doubt PSA’s decision will go down well with the FFR and their assorted sponsors and broadcasting partners. Much is made in France of rugby’s values, in contrast to the brattish behaviour of their football stars, and Picamoles has paid the price for the FFR’s desire portray a squeaky clean image.
The fans – the real French rugby fans as opposed to the Johnny-come-latelys who believe that Sébastien Chabal is the greatest player ever to wear the jersey – are furious with Picamoles’s demotion. “Incohérence”, “incompréhensible” and “incompetence” litter the posts left on the Midi Olympique messageboard. As several fans point out, how on earth has Pascal Papé retained the captaincy in the light of Friday’s farce? It’s questionable whether Papé is an international-class lock but he is most certainly not an international-class captain. Petulant with opponents and team-mates, at one point on Friday he yelled at Hugo Bonneval after the wing failed to read his wild pass. So much for a cool head in a crisis.
And how will Picamoles’s humiliation sit within the France squad? Only last week one of the France forwards told this correspondent that the Toulouse No 8 was one of the real characters in Les Bleus, a player with a ready laugh who changed into a ferocious competitor the moment he took the field. In short Picamoles is popular with his mates, and no one likes to see a mate hung out to dry.
At least PSA has resisted the urge to recall Francois Trinh-Duc. The Montpellier fly-half is not the answer to France’s problems. Why should he be now after failing to impose himself in his previous six seasons of international rugby?
If France are to have any chance of coming good in time for next year’s World Cup then PSA must keep faith with Jules Plisson at fly-half. The young ten had a tough time of it in Cardiff but which fly-half wouldn’t behind a pack going backwards and a scrum-half coming apart at the seams?
It was always a gamble going for Jean-Marc Doussain and alas it hasn’t worked out for the Toulouse scrum-half. Morgan Parra has been called up for the Scotland game but the Clermont nine was sent-off on Saturday after headbutting Montpellier’s Rene Ranger (what was that PSA was saying about values!). He now faces a disciplinary hearing and it may be that Parra’s return to the national squad is short-lived. That is not necessarily a bad thing; good player that he is, Parra is a scrum-half who likes to run the show and his presence in the starting XV would undermine Plisson. Pair the Stade Francais fly-half with Maxime Machenaud and France will have their best half-back partnership.
But with centre Wesley Fofana out for the rest of the Six Nations with a broken rib, and flanker Yannick Nyanga also sidelined with injury, France must travel to Scotland without two of their most enterprising players. It’s a match Saint-André has to win; defeat and the humiliation for the France coach will be far worse than that he has inflicted on Picamoles.