France are limping towards the World Cup with coach Philippe Saint-Andre in the firing line from the press and getting compared with Marc Lievremont

It’s all becoming wearily familiar for the French public, a distressing déjà vu if ever there was one. A squad allegedly at loggerheads with its coach, a media showing no mercy, and a run of results that suggest France’s hopes of winning the World Cup in six months are as slim as the legs on Brice Dulin. For Philippe Saint-Andre in 2015, read Marc Lievremont in 2011.

History has not been kind to Lievremont. His reign as coach is best remembered for a [1] questionable moustache, picking Morgan Parra at fly-half and insulting his players in press conferences. Yet he still managed to steer France to a World Cup final, win a Grand Slam and draw a Test series in New Zealand – not bad for any coaching CV.

Marc Lievremont

Le Tache: Marc Lievremont polarised opinion during his coaching reign with France (Pic Inpho)

It was during Lievremont’s last season in charge that it went horribly wrong. France began the 2010-11 season as European champions, which made their implosion to Australia in November all the more stunning. The Wallabies scored six second-half tries in a record 59-16 victory but Lievremont looked to have restored order by the time of the 2011 Six Nations. France began with victories at home to Scotland and away in Ireland, before losing 17-9 at Twickenham.

The French were still in contention for the title when they travelled to Rome, but another slack second-half performance saw Italy claw back an 18-6 deficit to win 22-21. It was France’s first Six Nations defeat to the Italians, and one that didn’t sit well with Lievremont. “To put it mildly, I can say I’m disenchanted,” he muttered. “I feel like I’m responsible for this, but the players are lacking courage. There is a certain cowardice. When I speak with them, nothing happens. Some of the players maybe wore the France jersey for the last time.”

It was an extraordinary statement given the stature of some of the men in the squad, players such as Imanol Harinordoquy, Lionel Nallet, Aurelien Rougerie, Yannick Jauzion and William Servat, who had rarely been found wanting in their illustrious Test careers.  They took the censure in silence, and the threat of wholesale changes never materialised. Instead the players responded  to the insults by hammering Wales 28-9 in their final match of the campaign.

Imanol Harinordoquy

Bond: Lievremont question the integrity of France players, that included Imanol Harinordoquy (Pic Inpho)

But the bond of trust, so vital between players and coach in any sport, had been broken, and it shattered six months later during the 2011 World Cup. Lievremont branded his players “spoiled brats”, describing them to a wide-eyed press pack as “undisciplined, disobedient, sometimes selfish. Always complaining, always moaning.”

Harinordoquy countered with some critiques of his own. “He was lost, I will not miss him,” he said of Lievremont after the tournament. “After the [pool] defeat against Tonga I did not attach too much importance to what Marc said.”
Lievremont’s  mistake was to heap all the blame on his players, and publicly. “He cast the stone at us too often,” explained Harinordoqoy. “When something goes wrong, we’re all in the same boat. There are no good or bad guys.”

Saint-Andre should have remembered Harinordoquy’s wise words before he addressed the press the morning after France’s defeat to Wales. In an emotional tirade he labelled his players  “starlettes”, accusing some of being more concentrated on having their photo taken than in representing their country. It was a foolish outburst, and one for which he was widely ridiculed.

French fans

Blind support: French fans will back the team but patience is wearing thin (Pic Inpho)

Claude Fauquet, the swimming coach responsible for transforming the fortunes of France in recent Olympic Games, described PSA’s rant as “pathetic”, adding in a tweet: “When the only guilty ones become the players, we’re nearing the irreparable.”

Like Lievremont four years earlier, PSA’s initial response to Six Nations defeat was to threaten sweeping changes for the next game but it the end he has merely tweaked the squad. Meanwhile his players – emulating their predecessors in 2011 – have kept their counsel in the wake of their coach’s insults but in private all is not well. This correspondent was told last month by a reliable Top 14 insider that the France squad is not happy with PSA’s methods, and Monday’s Midi Olympique suggested stormy times ahead: “Is the Tricolore squad on the brink of implosion?” it asked.

Lose to Italy on Sunday and the Eternal City will become the Infernal City for PSA and his players.