Renowned for their flair and panache, the professional era isn't being kind to Les Bleus, but it is because they haven't adapted fast enough?
The odds are in England’s favour on Saturday, not just because of this season’s Six Nations form but because of results in ‘Le Crunch’ over the last ten years. Bear in mind it’s a decade in which England have rarely touched greatness but they’ve still won seven of the last ten competitive matches versus France, and it’s now ten years since the French won a Six Nations encounter at Twickenham.
The reason for this dominance? The French are not fit enough, physically or mentally.
Incidentally, inferior fitness is a major factor in Toulouse’s decline over the last few years, their place as France’s powerhouse filled by Toulon. No coincidence that the man who revolutionised the Mediterranean club’s conditioning techniques was an  Englishman.
Speak to any Anglophone player who’s spent time in France and he will tell you the same thing: love the lifestyle, it’s just a shame the French attitude to training is also so laid back.
Why do you think Jonny Wilkinson was worshipped at Toulon? It was his work ethic. The French had never seen anything like it, a player who spent hour after relentless hour on the training park ironing out the tiniest flaw in his game.
I speak from experience. During my two seasons in France, my club’s idea of fitness consisted of a few sprints followed by half an hour of touch, and that was your lot. No speed endurance, no plyometrics and pumping iron was unheard of. In the end my Irish teammate and I – the only non-French players in the squad – did our own fitness out of hours, drawing on my experience of training under the frightening Margot Wells a decade earlier.
It’s the same higher up the food chain in French rugby. Last week I spoke to prop Ricky Whitehall, who spent a couple of seasons with Coventry before moving across the Channel to play for Lille, an ambitious club in Federale 1. He told me: “There is a huge difference in attitude to training in France. Less is expected of you physically, and a lot of the guys have never done any power lifting. In effect professional rugby means professional bodybuilding but a lot of the French don’t see it that way.”
It’s been this way for years. I recall talking to the former Wasps and Harlequins flanker Paul Volley about his two seasons with Castres in 2004 to 2006. “Here (in England) everyone wants to work hard,” he said. “In France there would always be chat, in the weights room and in training. I found it frustrating.”
The French know the English train harder, and it’s one reason England have had the psychological hold over their Gallic rivals for a decade or more, ever since French players began moving in numbers to the Premiership. I can think of many French players who had a spell in England – from Sebastien Chabal to Olivier Azam to Lionel Faure to Julien Dupuy – and I can’t think of one who returned home a poorer player. The trouble is, back in France, they soon return to their old ways. Take Dupuy. The scrum-half has never scaled the heights for Stade Francais that he did for Leicester.
The latest player to thrive in England is Leicester scrum-half David Mélé, who in a recent interview with Midi Olympique enthused about life with the Tigers. “The English, in terms of preparation, are always searching for the latest innovations,” explained the former Perpignan player, who added that the conditioning coaches are the first to arrive and the last to leave. “I now have the idea that I must do my maximum to not let down the team…I’ve improved my endurance, my speed, my explosiveness.”
Former France captain Abdel Benazzi echoed Mélé’s comments in the same article, recalling his spell with Saracens between 2001 and 2003. “Perfectionism is English,” he explained. “The thirst for knowledge also.” Benazzi’s most telling comment, however, was when he told Midi Olympique that it was at Saracens, the club where he ended his career, that he“found professionalism”.
But of all the French players who flourished in England none have done more so than Serge Betsen. He arrived at Wasps in 2008, his 34-year-old body battered and bruised after 17 years of loyal service with Biarritz, but ended up extending his two-year deal to four because he loved it so much.
Earlier this month, to promote the publication of his book, Les 7 Plaies du rugby français, Betsen did a round of interviews in which he expressed his deep concern for the future of Les Bleus. Calling for a root and branch review of the way the sport is run in France, Betsen said that the overriding problem was that “culturally, the French are often satisfied with the minimum.”
They could get away with that minimalist mindset in the amateur era but see how their results have declined in the last ten years as their rivals have embraced every facet of professionalism. In French rugby, however, there are too many dinosaurs wielding opinions and ideas firmly stuck in the amateur era.
But the bottom line is that in general the professional French rugby player is less dedicated to improving himself than his Anglophone counterpart. Which is why Frenchmen returning from a stint in the UK rave about the training methods, whereas British and Irish players coming back from France rave only about the lifestyle.