We look at whether France’s forwards are lacking the edge and fear factor of yesteryear
One of the most pertinent comments on the opening weekend of the Six Nations came from David Flatman. The former England prop turned astute TV pundit tweeted that “France have arguably never been less intimidating up front”.
Midi Olympique agreed, asking Guy Noves in Monday’s edition why the France pack “lacked aggression” against Italy. The France coach sidestepped the question, blaming his side’s docility more on a lack of speed than aggression. But, in private, what must Noves think when he compares the 2016 vintage to the pack he played behind when he won the first of his seven caps for France in 1977?
Noves was on the wing that day, playing in his home city of Toulouse against the touring All Blacks. The Kiwis, who four months earlier had beaten the British & Irish Lions 3-1 in a Test series, arrived in Europe with a formidable pack that included Graham Mourie, Andy Haden and Frank Oliver.
But they were up against a French scrum that contained several players of whom the memory, even today, sends a chill down spines of former opponents. “The scariest set of hombres I have encountered on a rugby pitch,” remembered Fran Cotton, who propped the England and Lions scrum throughout the 1970s.
Hooking was Alain Paco, a man so tough the great Wales hooker Bobby Windsor named his boxer dog after him. Alongside Paco in the front row was prop (and French military heavyweight boxing champion) Gerard Cholley, who in the 1977 Five Nations had punched out four of the Scotland pack in a manner likened to a “bus conductor proceeding up the aisle taking fares”. Robert Paparemborde was at tighthead, a judo black-belt and a scrummager of immense strength and technique.
The France scrum was locked by a couple of monsters in Jean-François Imbernon and Michel Palmie. Two months after the All Black Test, a French court ordered Palmie to pay £7,000 in compensation to an opponent he’d partially blinded with a punch in a club game in 1975.
Noves’s Test debut ended in an 18-13 win for France and nine years later the All Blacks were again beaten on French soil, this time in Nantes, a match Buck Shelford described as “the toughest game I played in”. The Kiwi No 8 recalled that “I was knocked out cold, lost a few teeth and had a few stitches down below”. That was Shelford’s way of explaining that a French boot had ripped open his scrotum, an injury that required some gentle needlework from the team doctor.
The French side of the 1980s gave way to another generation of hitmen and headbangers, the likes of Alain Carminati, Olivier Merle and Vincent Moscato, the latter famously sent off in the brutal 1992 Five Nations encounter against England at the Parc des Princes, a bearpit of a stadium infinitely more intimidating than the soulless Stade de France. But try naming a French enforcer in the past decade? They’ve had some hard men and talented players, notably Nicolas Mas, Serge Betsen, Lionel Nallet and Imanol Harinordoquy, but none who persistently and viciously went beyond the line of legitimacy.
The point is that we attribute France’s demise to the absence of flair but it’s as much to do with the disappearance of forwards who were very good, very fierce and very frightening. We think of the late 1970s and 1980s – the ‘golden age’ of France as a world power – as the time of Aguirre, Blanco, Sella, Charvet and Mesnel, but they only weaved their magic once their forwards had softened up the opposition by fair means or foul.
They were helped in this regard by the laissez-faire attitude of rugby officialdom, which rarely dished out lengthy bans for dirty conduct. In fairness, their task wasn’t helped by the primitive television technology of the time. The French pack was all the more intimidating for the home nations because in general their forwards were rougher. They were men of the deep south, farmers and blue-collar workers, whereas the English, Scots and Irish led gentler professional lives as accountants, businessmen and schoolteachers.
Professionalism has eroded that distinction and there’s little difference today in the upbringing of international players: school to club academy to senior squad to country. They are elite athletes who have an empathy and respect for one another that crosses borders and dilutes the feelings of nationalism that 40 years ago created a more hostile Test-match atmosphere.
Another result of the sport going pro is that it is now a business attracting lucrative sponsorship from some of the world’s top companies. In exchange for their money, these companies expect a wholesome product that reflects rugby’s positive values.
The French rugby federation, in particular, have done sterling work in the past decade in eradicating the violence from top-flight rugby, but have they gone too far? Their communiques are peppered with words such as ‘respect’, ‘values’ and ‘hard work’, which are all commendable attributes. But watching the French forwards front up so meekly against Italy last week, one couldn’t help wondering if they weren’t showing their opponents a little too much respect.
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No one wants a return to the sometimes mindless brutality of yesteryear but the France pack have to be less, well, nice. And they must learn how to play hard, fast and furious within the laws of the game, and learn fast. Because that’s exactly how the Irish eight will play on Saturday.
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