A nationwide poll at the start of this month reported that rugby is now the most popular team sport in France. Some 39% of the population preferred rugby to football’s 29%. That could change in the next three weeks if France win the European Championships; expect scenes similar to 1998 when hundreds of thousands danced through Paris after their boys beat Brazil to win the World Cup.
Back then Les Bleus were brilliant in both sports. France won their second successive Grand Slam in 1998 and 12 months later, in rugby’s World Cup, they produced the greatest comeback in the tournament’s history to beat the All Blacks en route to the final.
How distant those days now seem. The fortunes of the national team have never been so low in the professional era with France languishing eighth in the latest World Rugby rankings and in danger of being overtaken by Scotland and Fiji.
Last year’s World Cup was a fiasco, culminating in the record 62-13 defeat to New Zealand, and while hosts England were also humiliated, they’ve bounced back in impressive style, winning the Grand Slam in the spring and last weekend defeating Australia with a superb performance.
France, in contrast, finished fifth in the Six Nations, edging past Italy and Ireland in Paris with two displays of shambolic tedium. An under-strength France play Argentina in Tucuman on Sunday in the first of two Tests that has them as the firm underdogs for the series. If the Pumas do win it will be further evidence of their status as the world’s No1 Latin team, their U20 side having recently beaten their French counterparts in the age-group World Championships. France’s failure to get out of their group – they were well-beaten by the Baby Boks on Wednesday night – added to the air of despondency that has pervaded the sport in France this season.
Even the Top 14 feels depressed, and last weekend’s play-offs in which Racing 92 beat Toulouse and Montpellier out-muscled Castres were dismal adverts for what the French still like to call the ‘best league in the world’. Only Montpellier managed to score a try in the 160 minutes of rugby, and their three scores were hardly works of art.
No wonder that the LNR launched a desperate publicity campaign at the start of this week to try and sell out Roazhon Park in Rennes, venue for this weekend’s Top 14 semi-finals. There are a variety of reasons why many tickets remain unsold, including the Euros, fear of terrorism and the fact Rennes is hundreds of miles from the heartlands of French rugby.
But might not the dread of watching 80 minutes of slow, sterile rugby also be a factor? Judging by many of the comments posted on the message boards of French rugby websites after the play-offs, the patience of fans is wearing thin.
The mood was articulated in an interview this week with former France coach Marc Lievremont in which he said of the Top 14: “It’s our window, our soap opera…but all we end up with is aggression and violence, but little in the way of entertainment.”
Lievremont got himself into a muddle when he attempted to apportion blame for the Top 14’s plight. At one point he fingered the usual suspects – foreign players and their quantity – but he was closer to nailing the real culprits when he declared: “The clubs don’t want to play offensive rugby but rather a calculated, minimalist, risk-free rugby. It’s then executed by superb players who create very little”.
Exactly. Don’t blame the players, they are after all executing the game plan produced by their coaches. Bordeaux are a good example. In 2014-15 they scored 66 tries in 26 matches (second only to Toulon) but this season they managed just 44, the fourth fewest in the championship. “I don’t think it means we have less enterprise that previous seasons,” said Bordeaux scrum-half Baptiste Serin in March. “It’s that we’re more pragmatic. We’re approach matches in a more intelligent manner than before, with more thought.”
Not that it did them much good. Bordeaux finished seventh this season, as they did in 2014-15, when at least they entertained along the way.
It’s wonderful that 39% of the French people voted rugby as their favourite team sport, but neither the FFR nor the LNR can afford to be complacent. Rugby fans want to be entertained; they want tries, ambition, action. They don’t want 80 minutes of arm-wrestling. But if that’s what they continue to see in the Top 14 then they’re likely to start voting with their feet.