Are the French hindered by a lack of sport in their schools?

For those who care about the state of French rugby, the most depressing result last weekend wasn’t the ugly performance at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening, where France lost 18-11 to Ireland, but the defeat 24 hours earlier at Dubarry Park in Athlone.

On a raw winter’s evening Ireland U20 dished out a rugby lesson to their French counterparts in their 37-20 victory. True, the outstanding moment of the game was provided by a Frenchman, the brilliant solo try by Sekou Macalou, but in terms of technique, fitness and organisation, it was young men against little boys.

The gulf in technical class was evident in the first few seconds when Ireland’s kick-off went to Macalou. Not only did the French flanker drop the ball but he was standing square on to the oncoming Irish as he did so. It was sloppy, and symptomatic of the malaise at the heart of the French game – man for man they are technically inferior to their Anglophone rivals.

Thierry Dusautoir

Stop sign: Thierry Dusautoir is brought to a halt during France’s 18-11 defeat by Ireland. Photo: Inpho

It’s been a recurring complaint of France forwards coach Yannick Bru during his three years with the senior squad, and he said it again on Saturday night, complaining of the ‘technical rubbish’ served up by his players in Dublin.

It’s the advent of professionalism that has exposed this weakness within French rugby. Up until the 1990s the French dazzled us with their – go on, I’ll say it – flair, their willingness to attack from anywhere, backs linking thrillingly with forwards, as they did so unforgettably in the ‘Try From the End of the World’ against the All Blacks in 1994. Here’s the video…

A year later rugby went professional and in the last 20 years the game has undergone an extraordinary transformation. Players are fitter, teams better organised and coaches more astute. There is no longer the space on a field for the French to exploit. Rugby has become more technical and France have been found wanting. Why?

It had been puzzling me for a while, and eventually the answer was provided when I visited Racing Metro last August. I asked their backs coach, Laurent Labit, if he agreed French players weren’t as good technically as their Anglophone opponents.

He did agree, and his reason was illuminating: “There is a problem with sport in French schools and colleges,” he explained. “In Britain and the southern hemisphere children have opportunities to play all different sports, which is good for developing motor skills. In France you have to join a club outside school to play sports.”

Voila! There is no organised team sport in the French school system, and while children learn how to swim that’s about it. My ten-year-old daughter, who goes to school in Paris, has one lesson of PE a week. Since the New Year it’s entailed throwing a frisbee to her mate.

In French schools the emphasis is overwhelmingly academic. Sporty kids must join a club outside school to indulge their passion getting the chance to practise sport on Wednesday afternoons (Wednesday is a half-day in French schools) and at weekends.

Things improve slightly from 15 onwards when girls and boys with an obvious sporting talent can apply for a specialist sports school, such as an ‘Etude Rugby’, where lessons are combined with that particular sport. But there are only a limited number of places available so for many applicants disappointment is inevitable.

Ireland U20

Slow progress: Ireland U20 overcame their French counterparts on Friday night. Photo: Inpho

The fact that there is no organised sports competitions in French schools means their young people are missing out on that wonderful experience of representing your school, of playing rugby alongside your mates, in front of your mates.

Contrast that philosophy with the education system in much of the Commonwealth, where sport is central to the life of so many schools. The intensity of schoolboy rugby in Britain, playing in the NatWest Schools Cup, for example, matures the mind and develops the skills.

Look at schools rugby in New Zealand and South Africa, where in the latter big games are televised and some matches draw crowds of 20,000. With that sort of motivation, teenagers are going to spend every waking hour improving their skills and honing their physique.

The fact that the French are deprived of this opportunity leaves them at a huge disadvantage. The evidence? Look at the U20 World Championship, where in seven years the best France have managed is a fourth place in 2011.

People often blame the Top 14 clubs for importing too many foreigners but perhaps they have to because too much young French talent isn’t up to scratch. There are many gifted youngsters in France – like 19-year-old Macalou – but often their athleticism is undermined by technical flaws, which are exposed they higher they climb up the representative ladder.

Anglophone players are better equipped to deal with transition, and that’s why France are in danger of becoming a second-tier nation.

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