Eight games to go. Eight opportunities for Philippe Saint-Andre to finally settle on his starting XV for France’s opening World Cup game, against Italy at Twickenham on September 19.
The eight internationals begin in Marseille on Saturday when the French host Fiji. A week later Australia come to Paris and France’s final Test of the autumn is a clash with Argentina. Two months’ later it’s the Six Nations and this time around France have their tough schedule with outings to Dublin, Twickenham and Rome, where the French have lost on theirlast two visits. True, France also play England home and away next August but by then it will be too late to try out new combinations.
In one sense the pressure has never been greater on Saint-Andre. Since the start of 2013 the France coach has presidedover the worst run of results in recent history: played 19, won five, drawn one and lost 13, including series whitewashes in New Zealand and Australia. Their only victories have come against Scotland (twice), Italy, Tonga and England. Expectations are so low that when L’Equipe newspaper recently ran an online poll asking readers if they still enjoyed watching Les Bleus, of the 26,000 people who responded only 24 per cent did so in the affirmative.
A few days later it was the turn of Midi Olympique to heap humiliation on Saint-Andre, the rugby newspaper canvassing the opinion of nine legends of the sport to ask what’s gone wrong with France. The answers were savage. Jeremy Guscott said watching France these days “bored him to death” and the former England and Lions centre wondered why the French three-quarters were so technically poor they could barely pass the ball.
Likewise Sean Fitzpatrick singled out the poor individual technique while Tim Horan and Felipe Contempomi mourned the Gallic conservatism, accusing France of “never taking any risks”. The former Wallaby double World Cup winner went further, ridiculing the cliché that the only predictable thing about the French is their unpredictability. “For a while now I haven’t recognised France,” said Horan, winner of 80 Australian caps. “I find them predictable with little inspiration.”
According to former Wales fly-half turned BBC pundit Jonathan Davies, much of France’s recent woes can be traced to “a recurrent problem at half-back”, where Saint-Andre has never shown any willingness to build a long-lasting partnership. Witness the fact that in France’s last six internationals they have fielded five different combinations. “Few French No 10s are installed for the long term,” said Davies. “It’s something that is really very strange, and which seems to me incompatible with the ambition to play the game at the highest level.”
It must have been painful reading for Saint-Andre, one scathing attack after another from former adversaries, men he respects, and who know what they’re talking about.
But there’s time, just, for Saint-Andre to turn things around; if not transform France into potential World Cup winners, at least make them once more respected, and not ridiculed for being, as Guscott put it, a team whose game plan amounts to little more than “crush the head of your opposite number and we’ll see what to do after!”
To win back the respect of the world PSA needs to be bold. Selecting the likes of Camille Lopez at fly-half, Charles Ollivon at No 8, Teddy Thomas on the wing, Alexandre Dumoulin in the centre and Scott Spedding at full-back would send out the right message. These players may be inexperienced at Test level but they are in form, they attack, they invent,they aren’t one-dimensional.
So while the pressure is most definitely there, Saint-Andre really has little to lose between now and the RWC. It’s too late to sack him before his contract expires at the end of the tournament, and his reputation is already so low that were France to crash out at the pool stage it would be no great shock.
The real shock would be if France suddenly start playing some rugby this season. Let’s hope they do, let’s hope that Saint-Andre – such a dynamic player – will finally shed his conservatism and tell the likes of Ollivon and Thomas – both of whom scored spectacular tries in the Top 14 last weekend – to do for their country what they do for their clubs week in and week out.
Because as Tim Horan noted: “I wouldn’t say that French flair has disappeared. It’s asleep at the bottom of a cupboard and simply needs to be woken. Philippe Saint Andre should reopen the doors without further delay.”