By Gavin Mortimer
IT’S NOT much fun being a French fan at the moment. Humiliated last Saturday against the All Blacks, France have already lost the three Test series and are playing for their reputation on Saturday in the final match of the rubber. Coming on the back of a Six Nations wooden spoon, 2013 has been an annus horribilis for Les Bleus and in particular for coach Philippe Saint-Andre.
Hard to believe the former Gloucester and Sale Sharks coach ended 2012 full of bonhomie after a trio of autumn internationals that had seen France beat Australia, Argentina and Samoa.
So what’s gone wrong? How could a squad that thrashed Australia 33-6 (seven days before the Wallabies beat England at Twickenham) slump to a 33-0 defeat to New Zealand last week, the first time France have finished a Test pointless since a 21-0 drubbing to Scotland in the 1990 Five Nations.
The truth is that France are a good team poorly coached and even more poorly selected. For the evidence, look no further than the starting XV selected for Saturday’s third Test in New Plymouth.
Saint-Andre has made eight changes. Among those missing from last week’s Christchurch catastrophe are fly-half Frederic Michalak and No8 Louis Picamoles, the pair now back in France nursing injuries.
Wearing the No10 shirt on Saturday will be Remi Talès, the Castres No10, while his club team-mate Antonie Claassen is chosen to fill Picamoles’ boots. Frankly, both should have started the second Test. Along with scrum-half Rory Kockott, the pair were instrumental in guiding Castres to their first Top 14 title since 1993. Claassen in particular has been in the form of his life, and his greater dynamism and footballing skills are better suited to an All Blacks encounter than the more powerful but more ponderous style of Picamoles.
Claassen didn’t even make the bench for the second Test while Talès only came on as a replacement for the last 16 minutes. Yet Michalak was atrocious last week, a player shorn of self-belief and destitute of decisiveness. It was painful to watch, as it was during the Six Nations when Saint-Andre insisted on selecting Michalak at 10 despite one wretched performance after another.
Talès is the third France fly-half in three Tests, following on from the young Camille Lopez in the first match, and Michalak in the second. It’s a stark illustration of the confusion that has increasingly marked Saint-Andre’s tenure in charge of the national team.
Witness too the treatment of flanker Bernard Le Roux. Superb in the midweek win over the Auckland Blues, the Racing Metro loose forward acquitted himself well last week on his international debut in difficult circumstances. His reward? Relegation to the bench. Perhaps Saint-Andre didn’t feel he could have two South African-born players in his back row, or perhaps it’s just another indication that the affable Saint-Andre has lost the plot, in much the same way as his predecessor did.
Remember when Marc Lievremont began selecting Morgan Parra as his fly-half during the 2011 World Cup? It was just after he grew a moustache and began giving increasingly bizarre press conferences.
Another heavy defeat on Saturday and Saint-Andre might be headed for the funny farm, although in all likelihood he’ll be headed towards the job centre. He’s had 18 months to work his magic with the French squad, and yet the squad looks disorganised and disheartened. Defeat on Saturday will leave France with a 2013 record of played seven, lost five and drawn one, with just a solitary victory versus Scotland.
In his defence, Saint-Andre points to the number of foreigners in the Top 14, claiming there are a dwindling pool of players from which to select a squad. There is a touch of validity to his argument, but the fact remains there is a lot of top-class talent in the French squad and Saint-Andre is not bringing it out. Let’s not forget he insisted on playing Wesley Fofana on the wing for the first year of his reign, a crazy decision from a coach whose reign is fast descending into chaos.
If Saint-Andre is given the chop in the wake of the New Zealand debacle, who might replace him? Fabien Galthie the former France captain and now coach of Montpellier has been mooted as a possible successor, but don’t rule out Guy Noves.
The Toulouse coach gave an interesting interview to a French Sunday paper last weekend. Aside from praising the performance of Le Roux and reiterating his belief that Michalak is a scrum-half, not a fly-half, Noves criticised France for their inability to react to the New Zealand game plan. Was the wily old campaigner manoeuvring himself into position, ready to assume power the moment the guillotine falls on Saint-Andre? Last month in an interview with Midi Olympique, Noves was bemoaning the fact Toulouse are struggling to keep up with the likes of Toulon and Clermont in the transfer market.
It could be a cri de coeur from a coach now ready for a new challenge.
France XV: Dulin; Huget, Fofana, Fritz, Andreu; Talès, Doussain; Chouly, Claassen, Dusautoir (cap.) ; Maestri, Flanquart ; Mas, Kayser, Domingo.
Bench: Szarzewski, Ben Arous, Ducalcon, Vahaamahina, Le Roux, Machenaud, Lopez, Bastareaud.