Gavin Mortimer laments the lack of quality rugby on show in France


The Fallacy of French Flair

It was the denouement to the domestic seasons in England and France at the weekend. One was a thriller, 80 minutes of edge-of-your-seat rugby with 11 tries that left fans breathless. The other was more stolid than stupendous, an arm-wrestle of a game with just one try that left fans bored. Guess which was which?

Scott Johnson, Australia’s director of rugby, would probably have expected the thriller to have been the final of the French Top 14.

Last week, previewing the upcoming Test series between the Wallabies and les Bleus, he described the tourists as “the most dangerous side in Europe… If you have a look now, they’re playing a traditional French style: ball off the ground, a very powerful game. They have a young, talented group of players that play instinctively.”

Which begs the question: how much French club rugby has Johnson watched of late? Did he tune into the business end of the Top 14 where the semi-finals mustered a modest five tries to go with the solitary try scored by La Rochelle in losing the final 18-8 to Toulouse on Friday night?

In his column in Monday’s Midi Olympique, legendary French threequarter Pierre Villepreux lamented the quality of rugby on show, remarking sardonically that the match “was a reminder that in its roots rugby was played with the feet and was called football”.

In contrast, the semi-finals of the Gallagher Premiership threw up 20 tries to go with the 11 that Exeter and Harlequins scored at Twickenham.

Thirty one tries to six. You do the maths, Mr Johnson.

Related: Harlequins are English champions

Admittedly, the 2020 Covid-affected Premiership final was a tight affair, just two tries as Exeter saw off Wasps 19-13, but the previous year Exeter and Saracens shared ten tries in another magnificent game, and in 2018 the two same clubs scored five tries between them.

The last time a French Top 14 final rustled up five tries was 2006 when Biarritz thrashed Toulouse 40-13. Since then the majority of finals have been dour. Very dour. Between 2010 and 2015 a total of four tries were scored in six Top 14 finals, with no one crossing the whitewash in the 2012 and 2015 contests.

Unfortunately this sterility is often replicated when French clubs meet each other in the European Champions Cup, especially the latter stages. In this season’s quarter-finals Bordeaux beat Racing in one quarter-final and Toulouse defeated Clermont in another; not a try was scored in either game. La Rochelle, on the other hand, ran in six as they hammered Sale Sharks 45-21 and yet when they met Toulouse in the Champions Cup final they were tense and timid, scoring one try in their 22-17 loss.

Toulouse were similarly lacking in panache, scoring one try in the final, unrecognisable from the side that got four in their exuberant 40-33 victory away at Munster.

Why is this? The answer is simple. Club rugby in France is tribal in a way that it’s not in England or any other top-tier nation.

Even before the advent of regional rugby in Wales, when the likes of Llanelli and Neath would knock seven bells out of each other on a Saturday afternoon, club rugby in the Valleys couldn’t compare to the tribalism of the Top 14. Because when Bayonne play Brive or Clermont take on Toulouse there is far more than rugby at stake. It’s a cultural clash as much as a sporting one.

France has just had its regional elections, a big political event that has no parallel in the UK, Ireland, Australia or New Zealand. Each region in France has its own unique identity, and contained within that identity are customs, traditions, cuisine and, in many cases, dialect.

This parochialism is reflected in the songs one hears chanted on the terraces of Toulouse, Clermont, La Rochelle et al. It’s the same menacingly repetitive chant adapted to each club to the beat of a drum: “Ici, Ici, C’est La Rochelle” or “Ici, Ici, C’est Montpellier”.

“Here, Here, It’s Montpellier”. It’s a threat, a challenge, a warning to the opposition, that they are on their territory and they’d better beware. It’s the strutting cockerel with his chest puffed out.

This intimidating atmosphere is palpable. The players can not only hear the chants, they can feel them. They are pervasive, and inhibitive. Many French clubs are based in towns or small cities, such as La Rochelle, Castres, Brive, Pau, Clermont and Toulon. There’s often no escaping the fans, and if you lose at home to a rival in the Top 14 players will be made aware in no uncertain terms when they’re in a restaurant or a shop that they’ve let down the town.

Lose to Saracens or Leinster, on the other hand, and no one minds that much. It’s only Europe. Ask a French player which title he would rather win: the Champions Cup or the Bouclier de Brennus, and I guarantee it will be the latter every time. Ask the same question to an Englishman, Scotsman or Irishman playing in the Top 14 and the response will be different.

There are, of course, some entertaining games in the Top 14, although they tend to be early or mid-season matches, when defeat doesn’t mean the end of the world. Toulouse, in finishing top of the table in the regular season, scored 92 tries in 26 matches. That’s an average of 3.5 per game. Bristol, who topped the Premiership at the end of the season, scored 75 tries in 22 matches, an average of 3.4 each match.

But when the pressure increases, when the stakes are at their highest, then teams like Toulouse go into their shell. Conversely, in the Premiership, this is when the English clubs play their best rugby.

This has obvious ramifications for the fortunes of the respective national squads. England have been far more successful than France in recent years, reaching a Rugby World Cup final, winning a Grand Slam and two Six Nations championships, while les Bleus’ last silverware was a 2010 Grand Slam.

England were poor in this season’s tournament and they should have lost to France. That they didn’t was because the French couldn’t cope with the pressure in the final minutes, a frailty they repeated in losing to Scotland.

They did beat Wales at the death, exhibiting some rare composure, but that’s typically French: once every season or two they will pull off an impressive victory but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

This is the challenge for Fabien Galthié ahead of the 2023 World Cup: to build a team that is brave and bold, creative and confident, not forgetting consistent. A team that plays with the same fearlessness that England did against New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, or as Harlequins did on Saturday against Exeter.

It won’t be easy for Galthié, in fact it might be impossible, for the mindset of the Top 14 is conservative and cautious, and it’s difficult for players reared in that environment to then play without inhibition in an international match. It’s like expecting a slow-scoring Test batsman to go out and smash a century in a T20 match

The puzzlement is that we in the Anglophone world still cling nostalgically to the cliché of ‘French flair’. There was a brief period, in the 1980s, when the likes of Sella, Blanco, Lagisquet and Mesnel dazzled in the amateur era, both for club and country. But that was before professionalism ushered in more money off the field and more structure on it.

French rugby has never been the same since 1995. There’s no more flair, only a crippling fear of failure.

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