philippe saint-andre

France coach Philippe Saint-André

By Gavin Mortimer

THE Sunday Times ran a piece last weekend in which Rugby World’s very own Stephen Jones interviewed Philippe Saint-André. The coach of France was his normal affable self, buttering up the English ahead of Sunday’s encounter byacknowledging his “debt to England rugby” on account of the formative years he spent coaching at Gloucester and Sale. Then, breaking into a broad grin, he added: “Maybe the best way to say thanks, and to show them how well I was trained, is to beat them next Sunday at the Stade de France.”

You wouldn’t bet against France beating England seven days after they drew 17-17 with Ireland at the same venue. But if they do it, it won’t be with the pace and panache that personified Saint-André’s 69-cap international career. The former winger – best remembered by English fans for his magnificent try at Twickenham in the 1991 Five Nations – was clearly impressed with what he learned in England because France so far this Six Nations have played in a style à les Anglais.

There were times against Ireland when it felt like we weren’t watching France but rather an England XV circa 1994. Dominant in the scrum, destructive in the driving maul, impressive in the lineout…and appalling out wide, that best sums up France against the Irish.

lionel beauxis

Beauxis attempts a drop-goal

Fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc and outside centre Aurelien Rougerie both had games to forget while Lionel Beauxis, a replacement for the final 12 minutes, hardly covered himself in glory when he butchered two attempts at dropped goals after great work by his pack. There can’t have been much bonhomie between the forwards and backs after the match, not when one unit (forwards) had striven so hard to secure victory only to see the other (backs) mess up time after time. Apparently French president Nicolas Sarkozy dropped into the dressing room after the Ireland game: perhaps his diplomacy skills were called upon…

Modern rugby is all about ‘taking positives’ from matches so at least another try-scoring display from centre Wesley Fofana will have bucked up Saint-André. But he alone of the French threequarters has shown a cutting edge in this season’s Six Nations. Admittedly they ran in four tries against a poor Italy on the opening weekend but against Scotland the French were on the rack for long periods, and both their tries came from poor Scottish tackling. England won’t be as generous and their rush defence is likely to cause similar problems to the French as did Ireland’s.

thierry dusautoir

Thierry Dusautoir takes on Jonathan Sexton

So from a French fan’s point of view, thank goodness for their pack and the strength of their set-piece. Loose forwards Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy were outstanding against Ireland, second row Pascal Pape stood toe to toe against the great Paul O’Connell, and prop Jean Baptiste Poux gave Mike Ross an afternoon to forget in the scrum.

England’s pack will be bracing themselves for more of the same on Sunday, knowing that if they can gain parity at the set-piece then their backs can cause problems out wide. Even at 20, Owen Farrell is a better and more rounded fly-half than Trinh-Duc (assuming Saint-André keeps faith with the Montpellier No 10), while Manu Tuilagi will allow us to see if Fofana’s defence is as good as his attack. The back three are evenly matched though England will look to exploit full-back Clement Poitrenaud’s flaky defence.

Saint-André has talked of how the French players have a “ burning desire” to wear the French jersey, a message not too dissimilar from the one coming out of the English camp. Perhaps then Sunday’s clash will all come down to which team’s desire burns brightest.