He may only have just started but Guy Novès's job could be on the line should France falter in the autumn Tests. Gavin Mortimer explains why he's under such pressure
“Colossal” was the word used by Midi Olympique last week to describe the pressure on Guy Novès and his coaching team ahead of France’s three autumn Internationals.
The paper is right. The former Toulouse coach, viewed by many in France as a rugby guru, no longer has any excuses for failing to deliver success. His predecessors, Bernard Laporte, Marc Lièvremont and Philippe Saint-André, bemoaned the lack of time they had with the national squad, not to mention the shortage of cooperation between the clubs and the FFR.
Novès has got the time and the cooperation, thanks to the Accord signed between the LNR and the FFR in the summer that guarantees him two weeks with the players prior to the November Tests and eight uninterrupted weeks during the Six Nations.
France now has the same amount of preparation time as their northern hemisphere rivals, and the squad has been training hard for the challenge of taking on Samoa, Australia and New Zealand in the space of a fortnight.
Captain Guilhem Guirado was asked at the weekend what would represent a good return for France from the three matches. “Three victories,” he replied. “That’s the objective the team is training for.”
Midi Olympique was prepared to cut the squad a bit of slack in its assessment of what would constitute a good November for France. While defeat to New Zealand would be acceptable, said the paper, victory against Samoa and Australia was imperative.
That was before the weekend’s results, however, when New Zealand suffered their stunning defeat to Ireland and Australia ran Wales ragged with an expansive style of rugby that once, many years ago, was the hallmark of French sides.
None but the most deluded rugby fan would expect the All Blacks’ first defeat in 19 matches to lead to a crisis of confidence, and Italy are likely to feel the full force of the backlash on Saturday when they host New Zealand in Rome.
France play Samoa in Toulouse on the same day, a nation they struggled to put away when last they met in the autumn of 2012. On that occasion the French laboured to a 22-14 victory, thanks to the 19 points of Frédéric Michalak, with the Samoans scoring two tries to France’s one.
That win over Samoa was one of three for France in November 2012 (Australia and Argentina were also beaten), the only time in the past ten years that they have won all their autumn Tests. Traditionally les Bleus have started with a win and ended with a loss, as they did in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2014. The only exception was 2013, when a win over Tonga was sandwiched between losses to South Africa and New Zealand.
The prospect of France finishing the month with three victories are slimmer than a model on a Paris catwalk, and if Australia and New Zealand play to their full potential they could embarrass their hosts. Technically, the French squad is vastly inferior to their Antipodean rivals, while the leaden pace of so many Top 14 matches means that the players are incapable of playing rugby at the speed and intensity of their southern hemisphere rivals.
There’s not even a fear factor any longer with France, the knowledge for an opposition side that facing the French would be brutal and bone-jarring whatever the outcome. The now retired Pascal Papé made that point in his recent autobiography, saying that for the new generation of France internationals “the blue jersey doesn’t have the same meaning”.
Accusing them of “managing their image and their careers like show-biz entertainers”, Papé added: “The most important thing for them today is ‘how many followers do I have on Twitter, on Instagram’…[but] for me, the France team was mythical. Wearing the blue jersey was a dream I dared not hope for. For them, playing for France is good because they become bankable.”
Bankable, bland and a far cry from French sides of old, which were crammed with characters who fought tooth and nail for the cockerel. It’s been a few seasons since a France team showed any fight, but perhaps they’ll rediscover their fire in the next fortnight. If they don’t then Novès could be out of a job.
Rumours are circulating once more that should Bernard Laporte be elected president of the FFR next month he’ll want a new national coach. It would be difficult to fire a man who’s just beaten the All Blacks, but easy to get rid of a coach who’s overseen three defeats.
As Midi Olympique says, the pressure on Novès is colossal.