No amount of excuses or mitigating circumstances can deflect the fact France lack the basic skills in the current Test arena
One British newspaper offered a sympathetic assessment of France’s 19-10 defeat to Wales, describing Les Bleus as “transitional”. If only it was that simple. The fact is, however, that between them Maxime Machenaud, Jules Plisson, Maxime Mermoz and Maxime Medard have over 100 caps, while in the pack Guilhem Guirado, Alexandre Flanquart, Rabah Slimani and Damien Chouly have amassed 124 caps.
That’s a lot of experience and, yes, France have blooded several new players so far in this Six Nations, but then England are also going through a transition period with a new coach and captain, and they finished Saturday’s match against Ireland with four forwards – George Kruis, Jamie George, Jack Clifford and Maro Itoje – with just 24 caps between them. Same for the Irish, who blended experience for the trip to Twickenham with the youthful callowness of CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey, the latter pair making their international debuts. Yet Ireland and England played a quality of rugby that has far surpassed anything France have managed this year, or indeed for a number of years.
France’s problems run far deeper than the inexperience of their players. It’s their lack of ability which is at the heart of their long and painful demise.
The French current affairs magazine, Le Point, carried an interesting interview on Sunday with Pierre Salviac, a former rugby broadcaster who is running as the rank outsider for the FFR presidency in December. Salviac told the magazine he’s recently been in conversation with an unidentified ‘icon’ of the French game, who “deplored the lack of talent” in the French game. The former France great then recounted a comment allegedly made to him by Noves shortly after taking up his appointment as national coach. Having run his eye over the players at his disposal Noves drily commented, “I’m not going to be able to transform pumpkins into carriages”.
As this column stated last month, Noves has made some good selections since replacing the ultra-conservative Philippe Saint-Andre as coach, and in the pack the 20-year-old Camille Chat, Paul Jedrasiak (23) and Jefferson Poirot (23) have the potential to become good Test-match players. The serious problem is in the backline.
Jules Plisson endured a traumatic evening in Cardiff last Friday (as he did in 2014) and it’s inconceivable that Noves won’t start against Scotland with Francois Trinh-Duc, the Montpellier fly-half who replaced Plisson and produced a polished final 15 minutes. But let’s not get too carried away with Trinh-Duc. This is a player who’s been threatening to fulfil his potential eve since making his debut in 2008. Injuries have played their part in pegging back his progression, but the nagging doubt remains that Trinh-Duc – like so many French fly-halves before him – has neither the temperament nor the all-round quality to produce consistently top-level performances.
At least the French are finally admitting that their kicking game – in as much as they have one – is appalling. “It’s just not in our DNA,” explained Salviac. “This sport is called ‘rugby football’ but in making the translation we French forgot the football part.”
Salviac is right. French rugby has always regarded the kicking game – be it goal-kicking or tactical kicking – as inconsequential. Just look at the top 25 leading points scorers of all-time in international rugby and you will find all the Six Nations and Rugby Championship sides represented – except France.
Against Wales the French were comprehensively outplayed by Wales in the battle of the boot and the Welsh defence coach, Shaun Edwards, was at his diplomatic best when asked whether England would pose a different threat on Saturday week. “Their tactical kicking game and their aerial game is probably more testing than the French,” said Edwards. “We definitely won the aerial battle…against France.”
Noves agreed with Edwards’ assessment when asked by Midi Olympique, who then wondered if this inability to win the aerial game was a “cultural problem?”. The France coach replied: “Yes, I think it is. In certain countries the aerial game is fundamental in the development of the player. With us, it’s not really the case. We’re going to have to catch-up [in this area].”
France need to play catch-up in so many areas and one can feel a degree of sympathy for Guy Noves and the challenge he faces. If only he had a Fairy Godmother to go to work on those pumpkins
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