Modern sport loves its statistics. Some sports – cricket, for instance – always have because of their nature, but a surfeit of stats is a relatively recent phenomenon in rugby. Some serve a purpose, others don’t, and a few are downright misleading.
One stat that has been bandied about recently, somewhat aimlessly, like a ball travelling along a French back-line, is that Les Bleus are the top offloaders in this season’s Six Nations with 59, more than triple England‘s total. To some, these rugby statistics are evidence that France are in the throes of rediscovering that famous old flair.
The reality paints a different picture. France may be offloading, but with little intelligence or accuracy. Against Scotland – as against Wales – the French were guilty on several occasions of forcing the offload when it just wasn’t on. It’s a mix of poor execution and poor decision-making, but they’re only obeying instructions.
Last November Guy Novès gave an extensive interview to Midi Olympique in which he spoke optimistically about the future now that he had replaced Philippe Saint-André as national coach. Taking encouragement from Argentina‘s display at the World Cup, particularly their brilliant performance in beating Ireland 43-20 in the quarter-final, Noves said: “I saw then the start of a new vision…of a modern rugby which can be played despite not possessing the physical means of the Boks or the All Blacks.”
In Novès’s mind, the Pumas were winning “but also giving pleasure to the spectators” with their offloading game, and it was a theme he continued at the start of this year when he spoke again to the paper. Peppering the conversation with words such as ‘intelligence’, ‘improvisation’ and ‘adaptation’, Novès declared: “I would like to give the players the freedom to use their initiative on the pitch”. Novès is to be applauded for his bold philosophy – which is the opposite of Saint-André’s rigid, power-based game plan – but nonetheless it’s doomed to fail on two counts.
First because this generation of French players is not technically proficient to play the rugby that their coach demands. In his interview with Midi Olympique, Novès mentioned three players he’d played with or coached, who he wished this team to emulate: Thomas Castaignède, Denis Charvet and Erik Bonneval. We all like to dream but unfortunately there’s no French back today who comes even close to matching that trio’s innate talent. Why?
Saint-André suggested to BT Sport on Monday evening it’s because of a lack of opportunities for young French players in the Top 14. The ‘too many foreigners’ argument. That’s a cop-out. The bottom line is that young Frenchmen – like Camille Chat and Paul Jedrasiak – will break through if they’re good enough. But in most cases they’re not. Another ex-Bleus coach, Bernard Laporte, recognises this, which is why he’s campaigning to be the next president of the FFR on a platform of revolutionising the way rugby is coached to youngsters by hiring as many as 200 full-time coaches who will work with schools and academies to improve the core skills. In a recent interview Laporte lamented the skills of the current generation of French players, saying: “Virgile Bruni, who I’ve coached at Toulon, doesn’t know how to pass off both hands, while New Zealanders learn that from an early age.”
The second reason why Novès will fail is that initiative and imagination have been coached out of French players for the best part of a decade. As aficionados of the Top 14 will attest, the majority of clubs play conservative and risk-averse rugby, their coaches screaming instructions from the touchline to make sure their players do as they’ve been programmed in training. Novès was guilty of this during his time in charge of Toulouse, regularly being caught on camera waving three fingers in the air whenever his side were awarded a penalty within range of the posts.
Now he’s telling his players to play what they see, improvising and off-loading in a manner in which they rarely do for their clubs. It’s an alien approach for this generation of players, who in general are over-coached and not trusted by their club coaches to think for themselves.
As for Argentina, they are only going to get better between now and the 2019 World Cup given that the Jaguares are playing Super Rugby with a squad that is the nucleus of the Test side. In effect, it’s an international match every time the Jaguares play, which is ominous for Novès.
He takes France to Argentina in June for a two-Test series but will do so without players whose clubs are involved in the semi-finals of the Top 14. The clash of dates means Novès is likely to head south without the likes of captain Guilhem Guirado, Maxime Mermoz, Wesley Fofana, Scott Spedding, Maxime Machenaud and Wenceslas Lauret.
The France coach will thus be forced to field inexperienced players against the Pumas, which at least will keep the statisticians busy as they keep track of the record defeats.