France are sifting through the ruins of another Six Nations. For the fifth consecutive season Les Bleus finished in the bottom half of the table, and they're now in the grip of their longest period without at least a share of the title since the late 1940s. As coach Guy Noves launches an enquiry into how hope turned to humiliation, here are some lessons for France.
Some of Guy Noves‘ aura has faded in the last few weeks but he retains the faith of the French public. A survey published at the weekend revealed that 84% people think he’s the best man for the job. But while Noves is safe in the head coach’s job, the same can’t be said of defence coach Gérald Bastide and backs coach Jeff Dubois. In this Six Nations Championship, England demonstrated the ease with which it’s been possible to carve open the French defence, while France‘s total of seven tries in five matches is the lowest in the tournament – and the fewest tries the French have scored since they finished bottom of the 2013 Six Nations. Bastide is out of his depth and should be replaced by a more experienced coach, while Noves also needs to hire an attack coach to work with Dubois.
The Power of Picamoles
Never was the absence of Louis Picamoles missed more than in Saturday’s defeat to England. Billy Vunipola blasted holes in the French defence with his ball-carrying in a Man of the Match performance, and the French had no one to match his physicality. A hamstring injury in the win over Italy in the opening match of the Six Nations sidelined Picamoles and France were never able to fill the vast hole left by the Toulouse No 8.
Damien Chouly and Loann Goujon tried and failed, both lacking Picamoles’ raw power, and there are few other options for Noves. Eighteen months ago Charles Ollivon was being touted as the next great No 8, but since moving from Bayonne to Toulon last summer the 22-year-old has hardly featured.
Machenaud the marksman
France have gone through their scrum-halves in recent years: Parra, Doussain, Bezy, Tillous-Borde, Pelissie and Kockott. But Maxime Machenaud must be given the No 9 jersey for the foreseeable future. Not just because he’s a good scrum-half, an alert and intelligent player, but above all because he’s an international-class goal kicker. The only one France have.
Machenaud’s seven penalty goals against England were a Test record for a French goal-kicker, surpassing the previous mark of five in a match. An ability to keep the scoreboard ticking over with penalty goals is a feature of all the best sides but for too long France have lacked a kicker on who to rely. Machenaud has the consistency, although he won’t get many chances to work on his craft at Racing 92 – because of Dan Carter.
Noves started and finished the Six Nations with Jules Plisson at fly-half, but along the way he gave François Trinh-Duc another crack at the role. The Montpellier man won his 52nd cap against Scotland, but marked the occasion with a performance that characterised his eight-year Test career – nervy and inaccurate. The truth is, Trinh-Duc is nothing more than a solid club player, which is what one could say about most of France’s fly-half stable.
Camille Lopez deserves another chance on the back of his polished displays for Clermont this season, but Noves should take Anthony Belleau on June’s two-Test tour to Argentina. The Toulon youngster (who turns 20 next month) is benefiting from one-to-one coaching with Jonny Wilkinson, as he showed in the recent U20 Six Nations when he shone in the win against Ireland and Scotland.
Given that Noves knew Yoann Maestri well from their time at Toulouse, many in France expected the big second-row to succeed Thierry Dusautoir as captain. Instead Noves chose Guilhem Guirado and what a good call it’s proved to be.
The Toulon hooker has been superb, both as a player and leader, and it’s a source of encouragement for Les Bleus that while they’ve got a long way to travel if they’re to get back among the rugby world’s elite, Guirado will be an inspiring figurehead . “All the players have understood he’s a real leader,” said Noves, who indicated on Sunday that Guirado will captain France to the 2019 World Cup. “They’re all ready to follow him far.”