By Gavin Mortimer
France have to do more than just win against Ireland on Saturday. They have to win well. Only then will the press get off their backs; only then will fans start believing Philippe Saint-Andre knows what he’s doing; only then will the country begin to look forward with confidence to next year’s World Cup.
For the moment the mood in France is grim. The media and the squad are at each other’s throats, as seen on Tuesday when prop Nicolas Mas stormed out of a press conference, while from the sidelines the public looks on, their anger evident from the tone of the messages left on the websites of L’Equipe and Midi Olympique. “Even Italy are better to watch these days,” muttered one.
It’s a strange state of affairs given that France are joint leaders of the Championship with three wins from four, and still in with a shout of winning their first title since 2010 should they beat Ireland and England slip up in Rome. Last year France managed only two wins the whole year. Zut! We’re only in March and they’ve already won three.
But the French public aren’t fools. Ninety one percent of the 14,000 people polled by Midi Olympique this week believed Scotland deserved to win last weekend and not their boys who sneaked home thanks to Yoann Huget’s interception try. Before that there was the humiliation in Cardiff, where France’s 27-6 defeat was their heaviest in Wales since 1950, and before that unconvincing wins against Italy and England where France played well for 15 minutes of the first half against the English and 15 minutes of the second half against Italy. And that’s just about been the sum of their Six Nations – two short spells of quality rugby in 320 minutes
As usual, it’s the English who are partly to blame for French angst, though this time Perfidious Albion is only indirectly at fault. Why, French fans have been asking this week, have England travelled so far in Stuart Lancaster’s tenure while their team, in the same period, have gone so far in the other direction?
When Saint-Andre became national coach at the end of 2011 the French were excited. Here was a man to put the joie de vivre back into the national team after Marc Lievremont’s dour reign. They believed France would throw off the shackles imposed by the former Test flanker and play with the dash that characterised Saint-Andre’s career. Thirty two tries in 69 Tests – only Serge Blanco and Vincent Clerc have dotted down more times than Saint-Andre in French internationals.
As the French rubbed their hands in glee, so England fans were busy scratching their heads and wondering who this chap Stuart Lancaster was. Hardly a household name in the rugby world when appointed asEngland coach in early 2012, never even won a cap for his country. But Lancaster is a coach; he coaches players, something that his predecessor – Martin Johnson – was unable to do and a skill that increasingly looks beyond the ken of Saint-Andre.
There has been much discussion this week in France about Saint-Andre’s role, with suggestions he is more comfortable managing than coaching. In Monday’s Midi Olympique the paper said “his speeches confuse the squad” and for sure there’s not much coherency to the way France have played in his 25 Tests, of which they’ve won just eleven.
Jules Plisson is the embodiment of what Les Bleus have become under Saint-Andre; two months ago he was an attacking, daring fly-half who played close to the gain-line. Against Scotland he was a shadow of that player, a timid creature sitting deep, bereft of decision and direction. Now he’s been dropped from the team to play Ireland, replaced by Remi Tales, a workmanlike fly-half seven years Plisson’s senior.
In announcing the team to play Ireland Saint-Andre has made four changes to the side that beat Scotland, which means that in the 2014 Six Nations France’s starting XVs have featured 27 different players. England have started with seventeen different players in their five matches and both changes – David Wilson for Dan Cole and Ben Morgan for Billy Vunipola – were enforced by injury.
Saint-Andre appears to have no clear idea of his best team despite the fact that the World Cup is now perilously close. Contrast his position with that of Lancaster, who has two-thirds of his starting XV inked in for England’s opening game of the tournament on September 18 next year.
If France lose to Ireland the pressure on Saint-Andre will become so great that something will give: either he’ll jump or he’ll be pushed. The litany of excuses that he trotted out last season about player access and too many league games are old hat; prior to the start of the SixNations France had an unprecedented week-long training camp, and what has that achieved?
The brutal truth is that Saint-Andre is out of his depth as an international coach, a point rammed home this week by one of his predecessors, Bernard Laporte. Accusing PSA of being in denial, the Toulon director of rugby ridiculed his assertion made in the aftermath of the win over Scotland that France had “dominated” the match. “He’s not a politician,” sneered Laporte. “He isn’t obliged to lie. It’s rugby, it would have been better if he’d told us the truth: that we were lucky, that we played like drains but got away with it.”
France have been riding their luck since the start of the championship, from the moment Huget latched on to the end of Plisson’s deflected cross-kick to score 32 seconds into the game against England. It’s time their luck ran out against the Irish, and it’s time the FFR brought down the guillotine on Saint-Andre.