France are seen as outsiders for the 2015 World Cup but have the talent to upset the odds at the tournament
Philippe Saint-André was on French telly on Sunday evening in what was billed as La Face Cachée (The Hidden Face) of the France coach. It was an entertaining glimpse into the Saint-André household – driving his two children to school, playing tennis (he was an excellent player in his youth) and talking in English round the family dinner table – and it confirmed what most of us already knew: that PSA is a good sort.
He chuckled his way through most of the interview, telling the reporter: “I’m someone positive, I’m happy, smiley and yet often the image of me is often that of someone down in the mouth. That image is completely different to who I am.”
Saint-André blamed his public perception on the fact he doesn’t like losing. Unfortunately, as he himself admitted, France have lost plenty of times in the three-and-a-half years since he became coach (21 times in 40 Tests) and hence the hangdog demeanour.
Few people believe Saint-André will turn from hangdog to top dog in the next six weeks, and he himself admitted France are “outsiders” for the World Cup in an interview in Monday’s Midi Olympique. Yet there was a quiet confidence about PSA when he talked to the newspaper: “We’re going into this competition with a lot of conviction and not a lot of pressure because no one is expecting anything (from France).”
PSA’s confidence stems from the fact that for the first time in his tenure he embarks on a tournament fully prepared, and as one of the few coaches whose plans haven’t been disrupted by injury or suspension.
“We’re a team who is ready physically,” he declared, adding that the public shouldn’t worry unduly about the unconvincing win over Scotland at the start of the month. The match had been incorporated into France’s cycle of physical preparation and the players were “short of juice” because of the heavy workload. Against Italy on Saturday night at Twickenham in their opening Pool D game, PSA says France will be ready, his players at just the right pitch.
The bookies don’t share PSA’s optimism, and nor does most of the British press. One Sunday newspaper asked its collection of eight experts at the weekend which countries would reach the semi-final. No one backed France, all eight choosing Ireland to reach their first-ever semi. Are Ireland really that superior that Gallic chances can be so blithely dismissed? Ireland won their Six Nations encounter in Dublin this year but it was a narrow 18-11 victory and for the final ten minutes they were camped in their own 22. Ireland deserved to win the title but which of the two countries has more room to improve on their Six Nations form? Not Ireland.
People forget too easily that this France squad contains some world-class talent, probably more quality man for man than England or Ireland. Pick a Six Nations XV and Louis Picamoles, Nicolas Mas, Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget, Guilhem Guirado, Yoann Maestri and – when fully fit – Thierry Dusautoir would all be strong contenders.
Five of that number are forwards and that is where the French strength lies. Their set-piece is formidable and in defeating England and Scotland in their recent warm-up matches the French lineout lost just one of its own 22 throws, while pinching five of Scotland’s and four of England’s.
Their scrum gave England’s a torrid time in Paris, and three of their number – Dusautoir, Mas and Pascal Papé – have the experience of playing in a World Cup final. Mas isn’t even sure to start with PSA having the luxury of two quality tightheads in his 80-cap veteran and the younger Rabah Slimani.
France haven’t been successful under PSA because while he’s got them playing with power, he’s not been able to add pace and precision. The incarnation of this conundrum is Mathieu Bastareaud. Against Scotland the 18st 7lb centre carried for a total of 40 metres, made one line break, beat three defenders and made eight tackles, missing none. They are the positives. The negatives are his passing and his speed, in attack and defence, the latter exploited on a couple of occasions by Finn Russell with deft chip kicks over Bastareaud’s head. It takes the Toulon centre time to turn and cover back.
Midi Olympique recently described Bastareaud as “the antichrist of the famous French flair”, an affectionate jibe at a popular player with the self-effacing humour to take it. “What do you want?” he replied, grinning, when asked recently about his unique style. “I’m not going to put on a Matt Giteau mask.”
But Bastareaud serves another important function; he is what the French call a superb gratteur (forager), and his skill at turning over opposition ball is crucial to his side. With loosehead prop Eddy Ben Arous equally adept in this facet, France are confident they will beat Ireland by overpowering them in the set-piece and winning the breakdown battle.
Topping Group D would almost certainly result in a quarter-final against Argentina, France’s bogey team in recent years but a side they are more than capable of beating. The winner of that match will probably play the victor of Pool A in the semi, which could be England, Wales or Australia. The French have no reason to fear any of that trio, although the Wallabies are probably the side they’d least like to meet.
It’s right that France are outsiders but it’s wrong to laugh off their chances. They are a good team with some very good players, and for the first time in years they go into a tournament as well prepared as their rivals.
And opponents should also be wary of reading too much into the way France have played in the past three-and-a-half years. They aren’t like other sides. The French don’t require a period of a prolonged stability and steady continuity; it’s not their character. They can bring it all together with surprising rapidity, and the fact this tournament is in enemy territory will further spur them on.
France are at their most dangerous when they feel the world is against them, and already the players are moaning. On Saturday night some of the squad were kept awake by a wedding in their hotel. Perhaps on 31 October they’ll be throwing a party of their own.