Despite all the press over England’s embarrassing World Cup exit, France’s shocking 62-13 loss to New Zealand at the World Cup highlights fundamental issues in French rugby, argues Paul Wassell.
France have coughed and spluttered their way to two victories so far in this year’s Six Nations Championship against a determined Italian side and a struggling and injury-hit Irish team, before finally giving up the ghost against a powerful Wales side in Cardiff.
Despite the introduction of a new coach in Toulouse’s much-celebrated Guy Noves, little seems to have improved since France’s humiliating 62-13 quarter-final exit at the hands of eventual winners New Zealand.
What has happened to the France team that for so long dominated European rugby and challenged the southern hemisphere super powers? The situation is so very reminiscent of England after the 2003 World Cup triumph.
Back then, Sir Clive Woodward quickly resigned after realising the clubs and the RFU were not in any great rush to improve relationships between themselves and try to solve the club-v-country rows that had troubled the England team since the dawn of professionalism.
To provide you with some classic anecdotal evidence, the clubs had their benched England internationals helicoptered from the Stadio Flaminio in Rome in 2004 back home so they could play for their clubs the next day.
The lack of player access, the absence of a clear pathway between club academies and the national side and an absence of desire from many of the clubs to produce young English talent without any particular financial incentive caused subsequent head coaches Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton no end of problems, and although alleviated somewhat with the introduction of the EPS agreement in 2008, the situation is still by no means perfect.
France is in the same situation as England was back in those dark days. There is no agreement in place with the powerful French Top 14 clubs over player access and the impact of this was so keenly felt when Noves had to release his players back to their clubs last weekend. Injuries occurred and players were run into the ground once more. Coming up against a Wales team that now has National Dual Contracts in place and far more healthier relationships between the governing board and the regions, it was no great surprise that Wales looked both fitter and better prepared than France.
Many critics will cite French rugby’s increasing reliance on foreign imports and there is no doubt that it is having an impact on the national side. There is an increasing number of players in the French squad that are not produced in France but qualify on residency. Uini Atonio, Virimi Vakatawa, Scott Spedding, Rory Kockott and Noa Kakaitaci are just some of the players who have played for France this way.
Yes, there have been the likes of Brian Liebenberg and Tony Marsh in the past, but an increasing number of residency-qualified players does tend to correlate with an increasing number of foreign-born players in a domestic league. Squad and team places that could be used to develop young French talent are being taken by mercenaries from other countries.
Toulon, France’s triple crowned European Cup winners, are known for splashing the cash and throwing their chequebook about like there is no tomorrow, and their current squad contains 22 foreign-born players. Yet England’s Saracens, who are top of the English league and currently undefeated in their Champions Cup pool, have at least 20 foreign players in their main squad.
Yet Saracens provide the England squad a veritable plethora of players in Jamie George, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell and Alex Goode. Toulon, in comparison, provide just two players to the national squad.
France is not without top drawer talent either: Teddy Thomas showed Australia the immense talent he possesses and the likes of Gael Fickou, Maxime Medard, Maxime Mermoz, Louis Picamoles and Wesley Fofana show the wonderful players that are at the disposal of the France coaching team.
Accusations have been laid by numerous pundits about the type of rugby the national side now play as well. Under Philippe Saint-Andre, a former player known for his natural flair, Les Bleus resorted to a pragmatic, defence-base approach that belied France’s long-held esteem for off-the-cuff, heads-up rugby.
There is no doubt that the Top 14 is heavily structured in its style of play and this looks to be filtering down to the national side, but some of the skills evidenced in many games suggest the players are not robots but perhaps simply manacled gladiators.
The issue in France is that the clubs dominate the game and their combined financial clout is greater than that of the FFR, France’s governing body. The FFR is trying to battle against this by building its own stadium, given at the moment it only rents the Stade de France from a private consortium.
However, what incentive is there for French clubs to produce French talent other than as a matter of patriotism? How are U-18 and U-20 players afforded opportunities in the Top 14 when winning every game is paramount? These are questions both the FFR and the Top 14 clubs need to work together on to answer, but the issue of player release is one that still haunts France and must be rectified soon or the decline of the national team will be embodied in more supernatural results than a 62-13 humbling at the hands of an all-powerful New Zealand juggernaut.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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