Lifting hard times from French rugby

France can rediscover its flair best and get results, but action is needed on three fronts.

France has lost another 6 Nations rugby match. Yet again. Wales did a good job, but without taking away from them, there is clearly something amiss in the state of French rugby.

Are the players simply not up to it? Is it the coach? Is it the entire approach? The answer is a mix of the three. 

Some of the players are excellent but some are either below the level or just not suitable for the position they are playing in. The most obvious player out of place is the centre Bastareaud. He is a good player but not a "centre". He is a forward in stature and thinking, and should either be in the front row or at blind-side wing forward. Why coach Philippe Saint-André (known as PSA for short) insists on playing him at centre owes much to a lingering fancy in French rugby decisionmaking circles that power and crunch in midfield were lacking in previous French teams and that the reason why the All Blacks and South Africa do well is to do with power in the backs. However, the track record shows  that France does far better when it favours speed over brawn in the backs. And anyway, speed and skill are hallmarks of southern hemisphere backlines too. 

On the coaching side, one thing for France to eradicate is the systematic unchangeable alter of the Game Plan. It reminds me of those dirigiste economic plans France used to put in place; all very well for the economy, and may help draw the big picture strategy for a rugby encounter, but flexibility and reactive coaching are also needed on the rugby pitch too. For instance, in every game this season the thinking seems to be that the scrum half should be replaced 15-20 mins into 2nd half, whatever happens. This time against Wales the talented Parra, who held the line, created chances and attacked, is taken off and replaced by a much more conservative scrum half. That's plain disruption. Little wonder the Welsh try followed soon afterwards. Had PSA resisted that substitution and allowed Parra to continue doing what he was doiing, maybe momentum would not have been lost. Pity; PSA was such a natural player, instinctive, played alongside great improvisers, but as coach seems incapable of responding creatively to changing circumstances on the pitch. He seems governed by his Plan.

The third issue is approach. France entertained the world with its flair rugby for years, but they did not win world cups. The French establishment blamed flair, and decided that a more mechanical, power-driven style would pay dividends. It didn't. Not only are the French not suited to this style, but they underestimated how much rugby relies on speed and skill too. French ballhandling used to be mesmerising, but not any more.

The Top 14 league is part of the problem. But not just in style (they promote a very physical and quite boring brand of rugger); but the clubs seem to undermine the national side. This has to stop and more direct mutual support between club and nation has to be developed. 

French players can clearly run the ball in unique and entertaining fashion; players like Huget, Médard (where is he?) and Parra, or new boy Dulin and Fofana, can set attacks alight but need the team to operate in ways that help them to express their talent. The crash-crunch Gladiator brand of rugby is not a platform capable of bringing the best out of the French forwards or backs.

Unless France rediscovers what it does best and builds a game that balances agility and strength, and stops over-planning based on some hard-man rugger myth, and unless it shows coaching imagination that suits the intuition of the players, then the France national team will continue to struggle not only to win competitions, but fans too.


1 March 2015 

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