It's an easy get-out for French rugby that the influx of talented imports have dented their standing in the international game, but is it so simple?
We all know who’s to blame for the decline of France as a rugby power. Foreigners. It’s what everyone says, from Philippe Saint-Andre to Guy Noves, to most of the media. Midi Olympique used the excuse in its Monday edition, under a two-page feature entitled “Where have all our players gone?” Midi’s focus was on the France Under-20 squad, interviewing head coach Olivier Magne, listing the obstacles in the path of the Baby Blues in their quest to graduate into senior rugby, and describing the fate of the France U20 squad that won the 2014 Six Nations Grand Slam.
Of the XV that started the match that season against England (which France won 21-15), only Toulouse flanker Yacouba Camara has subsequently been capped at senior level, although Bordeaux scrum-half Baptiste Serin was called into the France squad during the recent Six Nations. Elsewhere centre Xavier Mignot has been a regular starter for Grenoble this season, while full-back Robinson Caire made ten appearances for the same club last season before being drafted into the France Sevens squad this year, joining Stephen Parez, a member of the 2014 France U20 team.
Fly-half Brandon Fajardo has played 14 times for Pau this season, second-row Arthur Iturria has appeared eight times (though just one start) for Clermont and centre François Bouvier has played 12 times for Agen. Game time has been harder to come by for No 8 François Cros, who’s made four appearances off the bench this season for Toulouse, while loosehead prop Oleg Ishchenko has been used as a sub by Montpellier three times.
The rest of the XV have featured in the ProD2 with hooker Romain Ruffenach and wing Kylan Hamdaoui regular starters for Biarritz, tighthead prop Tommy Raynaud honing his craft at Narbonne, and second-row Jean-Baptiste Singer a member of the all-conquering Lyon squad.
In fact only flanker Jean-Blaise Lespinasse has failed to play any senior rugby this season, the blind-side playing for the Bordeaux academy XV having made a handful of senior starts in the 2014-15 campaign.
For Midi Olympique this was a poor return two years after winning the Under-20 Grand Slam. In their opinion more of that squad should have been capped by France, or at the least should be playing more Top 14 rugby, rather than being cast into what the paper described as a rugby “desert”. The cause of the expulsion? Foreigners, the paper repeating the statistic offered up by Guy Noves last week that 63% of players in the Top 14 are outsiders.
I disagree with Midi Olympique’s negative assessment. One should not forget that most of the France U20 squad of 2014 are still only 21, raw in rugby terms, and yet half have already played several times for their Top 14 clubs. That should be a source of encouragement for the French, the fact that clubs are giving them the opportunities.
Am I being too upbeat? Well, look at the England XV that won the U20 World Championship in 2014. Like France, only one player has established himself in the senior side – captain and second-row Maro Itoje (although loose-forward Ross Moriarty has been capped by Wales).
Prop Paul Hill came off the bench against Italy last month for his one and only cap, but elsewhere the English class of 2014 have actually had fewer top-flight opportunities than their French counterparts.
Full-Back Aaron Morris (Saracens) and wings Howard Packman (Northampton) and Nathan Earle (Saracens) are on loan at Championship side London Scottish because, as Earle explained to The Rugby Paper in January, “it’s tough for youngsters to get game time in the Premiership or Champions Cup”.
Also on loan at Scottish is the Bath hooker Tom Woolstencroft, while Northampton Saints prop Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi has been farmed out to Moseley. Two more players in the Championship are flanker Gus Jones (London Welsh) and scrum-half Henry Taylor (Bedford).
Nick Tomkins, Paul Hill, Charlie Ewels, Billy Burns and James Chisholm are all with Premiership clubs but none are regular starters. In fact, other than Itoje and Moriarty, only Harlequins centre Harry Sloan has been a regular presence in his club’s starting line-up this season.
If young Frenchmen are good enough they will make it. For example, take the France U21 matchday squad that beat the Baby Boks ten years ago this summer to win the U21 World Championship. Eleven of them – including Guilhem Guirado, Maxime Mermoz and Damien Chouly – have gone on to be capped at senior level, which is the same number of South Africans.
Young French players have the opportunity to make it to the top. Some will and some won’t. Injuries may end some hopes while others may fall out of love with the game. A few just won’t have the determination.
Blaming too many foreigners in the Top 14 for the decline of France as a world force is the easy way-out. But it’s wrong. There’s actually an argument for saying that without the number of foreigners in the Top 14 France would be in an even worse state than they already are. Foreign players have brought with them not just their skills and experience, but also their work ethic, opening the eyes of French players to the dedication required to be the best.