Seven potential debutants, building bridges politically and a charm offensive, Guy Noves has made all the right moves, but can it continue?
Have we made a mistake? This correspondent and the other British and Irish commentators who have been noisily trumpeting that France have appointed the wrong man as their new coach.
Guy Noves hasn’t put a foot wrong since taking over from Philippe Saint-Andre after last year’s World Cup, handling the media in a way his predecessor never managed and even mending fences with Bernard Laporte. Now he’s selected a XV for his first match that is bolder than any PSA picked. There are four new caps in Jonathan Danty, Virimi Vakatawa, Sebastien Bezy and Paul Jedrasiak and three more on the bench.
Sir Clive Woodward wrote in his Mail on Sunday column last weekend that as a national coach “selection is your No1 skill. It is your team, your decision”. It was PSA’s weakness, as he admitted in an interview on Wednesday to promote his recent autobiography. “I acknowledge that I was a bad selector,” he said, adding that he found it hard to establish a rapport with the generation of players that in his opinion are the first to be the “true professionals”.
Noves has always been a good talent spotter. Rugby courses through his vein but decades of experience as a P.E teacher, player and coach have honed his eye so that he rarely misses a diamond, however rough. That’s why he drafted in Teddy Thomas on Monday as cover for the injured Wesley Fofana, less than 48 hours after the Racing 92 winger had played his first game in eight months. Thomas has great potential, a glimpse of which was seen when he scored his brilliant solo try against Australia in November 2014, but he’s not the easiest of characters. PSA gave up on Thomas last year but Noves obviously believes he’ll be able to smooth down the rough edges and allow the 22-year-old to once more dazzle the world with his talent.
Noves, who has 40 years on Thomas, has never baulked at blooding young talent. Look at some of the backs who have come up through the ranks at Toulouse: Frederic Michalak, Clement Poitrenaud, Maxime Medard, Jean-Marc Doussain and Gael Fickou.
But therein lies the rub. Noves knows talent when he sees it but bringing it out has proved more of a problem. Look at that list again. How many can claim to have fulfilled their potential? Doussain appeared in the 2011 World Cup final aged 20. An 18-year-old Fickou announced himself to the world with a fine solo try against Leicester in the 2012 Heineken Cup. Their careers have stalled in recent years. The same goes for Michalak, Poitrenaud and Medard.
The 29-year-old Medard, who has been picked at full-back against Italy, has been given a second life by Noves, making his first start in the 15 jersey for three years, but Poitrenaud is fated to be a player who could have been a great of the game if only his considerable gifts had been better coached.
In his final years at Toulouse, Noves was much more a manager than a coach, with Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and William Servat his assistants and the men seen most on the training park. It will be a similar set up with France, Noves as Director of Rugby and Yannick Bru and Jeff Dubois the men tasked with implementing the game plan.
Bru was PSA’s forwards coach, and though he knows his rugby, he couldn’t claim to have achieved much success in the last four years. Dubois was backs coach at Stade Francais last season when the Parisians won the Top 14 title, scoring 60 tries in the regular season, a total bettered only by Toulon and Bordeaux.
The 42-year-old Dubois is an attack-minded coach and he’s come far in a short space of time, graduating from Massy in the Federale 1 to Stade Francais to the national side. He’s young, ambitious but inexperienced in international terms. He’s also a former Toulouse player. As is Bru. The pair played together under Noves from 2004 to 2007.
At least, they’ll know how Noves likes to operate, be aware of his foibles, his way of doing things. But will they stand up to him? If things go wrong, if one of them believes they need to make changes, in personnel or to the game-plan, will they have the courage to confront a man who Yoann Maestri this week described as ‘Un Colonel’? Servat and Elissalde were also former charges of Noves at Toulouse, and at times in the last years of Noves’ reign at the club they appeared little more than his lackeys.
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It’s unlikely that Noves’ defence coach will, a man unknown to most across the Channel. Gérald Bastide has spent the last seven years working for the FFR, first with the national U19 squad and then the U20s. He would appear therefore to be an Establishment man. How good is he? The French junior teams haven’t excelled in recent years, and one coach high up in French rugby told me this week of his encounter with Bastide. During a coffee break at a recent coaching seminar, Bastide was asked by his peers to explain briefly his defensive philosophy. He looked pensive for ten seconds before declaring: “To build a good line”. The other coaches waited, expecting him to elaborate, but no more information was forthcoming. Eventually someone asked if that was it. Bastide deliberated for a few more moments and added: “To build a very good line.” With that he took his coffee and left.
Perhaps Bastide was just pulling their legs. We’ll find out in the next few weeks, as we’ll discover if Noves is more than just a daring selector.