France coach Philippe Saint-Andre needs a good performance from his side in Melbourne on Saturday following their first-Test hammering by Australia
SATURDAY’S TEST against Australia in Melbourne is the biggest match of Philippe Saint-André’s coaching career. If the Aussies wallop the French the way they did in the first Test, it will be the final, incontrovertible proof that here is a coach hopelessly out of his depth.
We’ve had the excuses – not just this week but for the past two years – with PSA blaming the Top 14, the clubs, the players’ attitudes and the fixture list for France’s malaise. But he’s never blamed himself for being unable to motivate his players, for fielding teams who lack direction, structure and creation, and for making poor selections, as he did last week in starting with Sébastien Vahaamahina in the second row despite the fact he’s managed just 59 minutes of rugby in the last three months.
How can a side containing world-class players such as Wesley Fofana, Nicolas Mas and Yoann Huget leak 50 points against an Australian side that is improving but still far from the finished article? How can a country with 30 professional clubs finish fourth in the 2014 Six Nations (they were bottom in 2013), behind Ireland and Wales, who have minuscule resources compared to the French?
France ran out at Brisbane last week at the end of a long season but nevertheless most of the squad had benefited from three weeks’ rest between the end of their domestic season and the first Test. Anyway, the likes of England’s Joe Marler, Freddie Burns and Chris Robshaw have also endured gruelling seasons but one wouldn’t have guessed from the way they performed against the All Blacks.
No, France’s problems go far deeper than the length of the Top 14 season. The style of the rugby played in the championship might be more relevant, however, with too many games bedevilled by the conservatism of their coaches. Too many Top 14 matches are slow, risk-averse affairs, so is it any wonder that French internationals struggle to adapt to the faster pace of Test match rugby? Yes, Toulon won the Heineken Cup – albeit with a starting XV containing three Frenchman – but look at what happened to Clermont in the semi-final when Saracens played with a bewildering intensity.
For Clermont, read France last Saturday. The French were quite lively for the first ten minutes but then Australia found their rhythm, put width on their game, produced quick ball, asked questions of the French defence – to which the tourists had no answers.
Saint-André has responded by making ten changes for the second Test with Huget, Fofana, second-row Yoann Maestri, hooker Guilhem Guirado and No 8 Damien Chouly the only players to keep their places.
That means France welcome back, among others, captain Thierry Dusautoir, Yannick Nyanga on the other flank, scrum-half Morgan Parra, centre Mathieu Bastareaud and Brice Dulin at full-back. If the presence of five such outstanding, and experienced, players fails to fire France then we know there’s no hope for Les Bleus as long as Saint-André is in charge.
England’s impressive display across the Tasman Sea on the same day as France were dismantled only throws into sharper relief the fortunes of the two nations since the start of 2012. Following Saint-André’s appointment as coach, France have won 11 of their 27 matches, a win ratio of 53%. England, on the other hand, have triumphed in 18 of their 28 matches, a win ration of 66%. And they haven’t just won more games, England under Stuart Lancaster, have also developed a style of rugby that makes them credible contenders for next year’s World Cup. In the 28 Tests under Lancaster England have scored 60 tries and conceded 459 points; France have got 46 tries but leaked 542 points under Saint-André.
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So France have to win on Saturday, and keep the three-Test series alive, otherwise it will confirm what Midi Olympique declared in a prominent headline in its Monday edition: “France…Nation Mineure”.
Gavin Mortimer recalls seven top tour tales in the latest issue of Rugby World – on sale now.