In his final Six Nations, Phillippe Saint-Andre has confounded his critics and picked a powerful side that will have the other nations shifting uneasily in their camps
Perhaps the pressure is no longer on the shoulders of Philippe Saint-Andre [PSA]. Or at least not to the same extent it has been at the start of his three previous Six Nations tournaments. His tenure as France coach ends after this year’s World Cup, and he won’t be renewing his contract. According to some reports in the French press earlier in the week, PSA – still only 47 – is likely to return to the club scene, with one paper suggesting it might not be beyond the realms of possibility to see him take the reigns at Toulouse. Time will tell.
In the short-term, however, PSA is focused only on preparing France for the Six Nations, a tournament in which he has been spectacularly unsuccessful in his three years in charge. Fifteen matches played in that time, and just six victories along with a wooden spoon in 2013. That humiliation was bookended by fourth place finishes in 2012 and 2014 to leave PSA as the most underachieving coach of the Les Bleus in the professional era.
In the past PSA has lamented – with some justification – the lack of time he’s had with his squad, contrasting France’s preparation with that of Home Nations. This year there can be no Gallic grievances. There is relative harmony between the FFR and the Top 14 clubs with an accord agreed last season that limited the 30 top players to a maximum of 30 matches a season.
PSA has had the bulk of his players in a training camp for the last ten days, and together with the squad sessions they enjoyed in September and October, France are as well prepared as their rivals.
As for injuries, France go into the Six Nations relatively unscathed, certainly compared to the A&E Department that is England. Of the XV that started France’s last international, the defeat to Argentina in November, only scrum-half Sébastien Tillous-Borde is on the injury list. Racing Metro centre Alexandre Dumoulin would have likely started if he hadn’t been beset by niggles these past few weeks, while the two back-rowers Louis Picamoles and Charles Ollivon would have been in contention for a place on the bench.
Tillous-Borde has lost some of his early season snap since the winter kicked in, and even had he been fit the Toulon man would have likely lost out to Rory Kockott, who’s selected at scrum-half inside Clermont’s Camille Lopez. Kockott hasn’t played this season for Castres with the same conviction he’s shown in the past two Top 14 campaigns; no surprise given their collapse in form. Nonetheless he remains a supremely gifted scrum-half, and a reliable goal-kicker (he was the leading points scorer in the 2012-13 Top 14 season with 376).
Yet for all Kockott’s talent the French public have yet to warm to him the way they have their other adopted South Africans, full-back Scott Spedding (below) and flanker Bernard Le Roux. Kockott’s problem is his sang-froid, that temperament of his that enables him to keep his composure even in the tightest of matches. The French are more hot-blooded than cold-blooded, a people whose passions run high in all walks of life. They loved it when Spedding wept at news of his call-up to the squad but Kockott’s inscrutability unnerves them.
Midi Olympique in an article on Monday said the scrum-half had an “intouchable confiance”, a term he himself rejected: “It’s not me I believe in but in God,” he told Midi. “It’s him who gives me this conviction. This is what makes it unbreakable.” That reply probably won’t do much to endear him to the French. They, like the British, prefer in general their public figures to keep their views on God to themselves.
Elsewhere PSA has kept faith with the core of side that appeared in the November internationals, which means the exciting back three of full-back Scott Spedding and wingers Teddy Thomas and Yoann Huget is reunited. Mathieu Bastareaud partners Wesley Fofana in the centre and with Remi Lamerat on the bench there isn’t much creativity in midfield. PSA obviously prefers his centres big, strong and direct to the more subtle footballing skills of Gael Fickou and Maxime Mermoz.
Meanwhile in the pack, PSA has brought in Rabah Slimani for Nicolas Mas on the tighthead. It’s a big call by the French, omitting the 76 caps of Mas (who doesn’t even make the bench) and replacing him with an inexperienced international who has only started two Tests for his country.
But isn’t that what the Six Nations is all about? Big calls, brave calls and bullish predictions. And here’s one for you – France to win the Six Nations.
Check out what’s in our 156-page Six Nations March 2015 special issue – in shops now!