A penny for Philippe Saint-Andre’s thoughts as he watched France batter Scotland into submission at the Stade de France on Sunday. PSA was pilloried for much of his four-year reign as France coach for the sterility of his teams, preferring power over panache, but have Les Bleus improved that much in 13 months under Guy Noves?
There’s been much talk about a French renaissance under the former Toulouse coach, about a new ambitious and expansive game plan where players are given licence to express themselves in a way they never were under PSA. “Elan, initiative and freedom” was what Noves promised when he succeeded the former Toulon director of rugby.
There was little elan and initiative on show on Sunday. It was brutally reminiscent of how France played two or three years ago when Mathieu Bastareaud would launch himself at the opposition three-quarters.
Noves has so far resisted the temptation to hand Bastareaud his first international appearance since the 2015 RWC, although he did call him up to his squad earlier in the month when the similarly unsubtle Yann David withdrew with injury.
In fairness to Bastareaud, he may not be the most agile of centres, but he would surely have touched the ball down over the Scottish try-line, unlike Remi Lamerat, whose clumsy drop was one of numerous mistakes by a French team almost as butter-fingered as the one that made 29 handling errors against Italy in the 2015 Six Nations. For all France’s dominance up front, they were outscored two tries to one and had the reliable boot of Camille Lopez to thank for their 22-16 victory.
France have scored two tries in this year’s championship, the same number as Italy, and in total they have managed just nine in seven Six Nations matches under Noves. In contrast England and Scotland have racked up 16 tries in the same period with Wales numbering 21 and the Irish up to 27 following Saturday’s thrashing of an abject Italian side.
Noves succeeded Saint-Andre with a promise to make France a world power once more yet there are few signs that they are progressing. They failed to put away a second-string Australian side, were comfortably kept at arm’s length by an exhausted All Blacks and didn’t beat England at Twickenham when the hosts were well below par. Against Scotland, they won because of size, not skill, and for the first time since his appointment, Noves is being subjected to some critical questioning from the French press.
Have you the impression that the game plan has taken a step backward? asked one. “I’ll leave you to your impression,” replied Noves. “I’m not sure how winning sets us back…and given everything we’ve done in the last few matches, to suggest from one match that we’ve gone backwards, that annoys me a bit.”
Noves’ defensiveness is understandable. After losing three matches by less than a converted try each it was important for France to grind out a win against Scotland, no matter how unconvincing. But next up for France is a trip to Dublin and it’s hard to see how they can beat an in-form Ireland. The home side may struggle for parity at scrum-time, particularly if Rabah Slimani starts in place of Uini Atonio, but the crisp handling, incisive running and precise finishing of the Ireland backline is far to superior to the French three-quarters. One fears for the defensively suspect Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci if Ireland really click out wide on Saturday week.
Noves made his name as coach of Toulouse at the beginning of the Millennium when they boasted a backline of extravagantly-gifted backs such as Poitrenaud, Clerc, Michalak, Heymans, Ntamack and Jauzion. But that was the era when the Top 14 was defined by its flair and not its physicality and clubs put entertainment before profit. The win at-all-costs mentality that now pervades the Top 14 means players aren’t encouraged to play with the “elan, initiative and freedom” of which Noves nobly speaks.
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Noves is doing his best with a mediocre bunch of players, probably the most technically deficient French generation in living memory. But don’t expect the next generation to ride to his rescue any time soon. France U20s were crushed 59-17 by their English counterparts recently, a result that reinforces the gulf in quality between the men in white and the boys in blue.