By Gavin Mortimer
IT’S A measure of how far France have fallen that after losing 22-20 to Ireland on Saturday one of their own, centre Mathieu Bastareaud, declared: “Tonight we can be proud of what we have shown.”
No one played with more heart against the Irish than the Toulon centre but one wonders of what he was proud. Proud of losing at home to Ireland, a minuscule rugby nation in terms of resources compared to France, whose 30 professional clubs dwarf Ireland’s four provinces? Proud of the fact that the French performance was again strewn with unforced errors? Proud that they managed one line break the whole night compared to their opponents’ seven?
Presumably Bastareaud was referring to the fire the French showed, and it was indeed refreshing to see after the disinterest displayed against Wales and Scotland, but it’s a sorry tale when a Test team has to be praised for putting their bodies on the line at the end of a week in which they’ve been savaged by their public and press.
Not that Bastareuad was alone in taking satisfaction from the result. “I believe it was a constructive defeat,” said captain Pascal Papé on Saturday evening. “We took a lot of pleasure today on the pitch.” Since when were France happy to be plucky losers?
Against Ireland France were technically as bad as ever, with their set-piece fragile and their defence disorganised. You wouldn’t believe it though, listening to Philippe Saint-André afterwards. Asked if he believed France were on course to win next year’s World Cup, the coach replied: “I believe we can because the squad is progressing.”
Well, in a sense, they are progressing. Last season France finished bottom of the Six Nations; this year they were fourth. Then again, the cynic might say it was impossible to finish any lower than fourth because Italy and Scotland were so awful.
Yoann Huget and Brice Dulin were the only Frenchmen to play consistently well throughout the tournament, and the only time France looked dangerous was when they played off the cuff, when Dulin, Huget, Bonneval, Fofana and Fickou took matters into their own hands and ran with the ball.
The truth is that 18 months from the World Cup France are no nearer to knowing their strongest side than they were at the end of the 2013 Six Nations. Incredibly, only six French players started all five games in this year’s tournament. England and Ireland, in contrast, have two thirds of their World Cup jigsaw in place and can use the next 12 months to fill in the missing pieces.
France, on the other hand, are running out of time. In a little over two months they head Down Under to play three Tests against Australia and then in November they host Fiji, Australia and Argentina. Six matches for Saint-André to work out the following in time for the 2015 Six Nations:
· A back-row combination (he tried four during the 2014 Six Nations Championship)
· A half-back pairing (he tried three)
· A centre pairing (he tried three)
· A front-row combination (he tried three).
In contrast, Ireland started with the same front-row, half-back and back-three combinations the entire championship, while England did likewise at half-back, centre, second row and in the back three.
It might also be an idea if France find a goalkicker, it’s quite an important part of the game. Maxime Machenaud made a good fist of the role on Saturday evening, kicking all his four attempts at goal, before Saint-André hauled him off with 15 minutes remaining and replaced him with Jean-Marc Doussain, a player who’s fast gaining a reputation for being flakier than a croissant. What was Doussain’s first contribution? To miss an absolute sitter.
Oh, Philippe, where did it all go so wrong? How has a man who, as a player thrilled us so often, turned into an arch pragmatist as a coach, picking teams to win only the next game, with no thought to the future. Yet that approach has clearly not worked. In their four years under Marc Lievremont, France never finished lower than third in the Six Nations and they won a Grand Slam in his third season. In Saint-André’s three seasons, France have never finished higher than fourth. Some progress.