FRENCH RUGBY HAS always had something of an issue with structure.
Pre-ordained shapes, set-ups and patterns have long been seen as the stuff of the dull Anglo-Saxons, who remained ignorant of the magic that could be created by allowing players utter freedom to create.
Flair, instinct, vision, footwork, offloading have been historically valued in l’Hexagon, although French rugby in recent decades has grown extremely found of le combat and some teams have gone to the very different extreme of game plans based around low risks, gaining territory and the core belief of ‘no scrum, no win.’
Whatever about the underlying philosophy, many French clubs have shunned the example of Irish, English and Southern Hemisphere teams, who have placed great store in pre-calling multiple phases and being very structured in their approaches to attack.
However, this season has seen something of a revolution in little old Grenoble, where the structured rugby being coached by Irishmen Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast has seen the club introduce their own brand of ‘French flair’.
With seven rounds of the Top 14 season played, Grenoble have the second best attack in the league, statistically speaking. In terms of the impression their use of possession has made, they are rivalling the juggernaut that is Toulon.
188 points in the opening fixtures of the season, and 20 tries in total, has seen FCG outscore the likes of Clermont, Montpellier, Stade Français and Toulouse, all of whom have greater budgets than the Isère club.
These remain early, early days in the season, but results so far suggest that Grenoble can improve on the their 11th-place finishes in the last two seasons.
“It’s basically giving ourselves structure to have an opportunity to play with flair,” says head coach Bernard Jackman of the attacking philosophy that has brought about Grenoble’s positive beginning to the campaign.
“We’ve put a huge amount of emphasis on structure this year, which wasn’t there last year or historically there. It was very much the nine and ten calling things on the run.
“I feel that unless you’re physically much more powerful than the opposition, it’s very hard to play that way.
“What we try to do is attack smarter, and ask questions of each defender with how we attack the line. We get better at that as we rep it consistently. By having a pre-planned attack, there’s real clarity in what we’re doing.”
Everything in its right place
By having a detailed structure in any game plan, coaches allow their players to feel organised in their attack. Every player is on the same page as to where the thrust of the next phase of play will be, and that often contributes to a more unified attack.
We get an example in the video above, as Grenoble score from inside their own half by shifting the ball from one side of the pitch to the other. It’s not merely a case of flinging passes, however.
Grenoble have a lovely shape off the ruck wide on the left, with a bank of forwards in the middle of the pitch.
Centre Nigel Hunt is at first receiver [yellow circle], lock Hendrik Roodt acts as the passing link in that midfield bank of forwards [blue rectangle], Jonathan Wisniewski is out the back door [purple circle], and then there’s a pod of three players holding the width on the right [orange triangle].
Each player is aware of his role, understanding where he needs to be in this particular shape and on this particular phase. The results for Grenoble in this instance speak for themselves.
In the clip below, we see another similar attack from Jackman’s men last weekend in the 27-25 win over Racing Métro, although there is no clean linebreak in the middle of the pitch on this occasion.
That said, some superb handling from Albertus Buckle as the linking forward allows Hunt to send hooker Anthony Hegarty trundling well over the gainline and forces Racing’s defence uncomfortably onto the back foot.
This time out-half Wisniewski is the first receiver [yellow circle below], we again see that bank of forwards in the middle of the pitch [blue square], Hunt is hovering out the back door [purple circle] and further out is a pod of players providing the width [orange triangle].
On the next phase, Wisniewski knows he will have Buckle on his left shoulder, and sends the prop into contact. As Grenoble clear that ruck, we can see Irish centre Chris Farrell signalling that there is space on the right.
Wisniewski doesn’t need to hesitate, again knowing that there will be players in the right place and electric wing Alipate Ratini finishes off the multi-phase, highly-organised attack.
Let the boys play
While highly-planned rugby may sound restrictive, the opposite has been true in Grenoble’s case early this season.
“At the start, certainly the joke was that French flair is dead, we’re going to play Anglo-Saxon rugby,” explains Jackman. "But now, they realise that this is actually giving them the opportunity to attack and express themselves way more than they ever had done.
“Last year, we had the least amount of passes, least amount of offloads, and least amount of linebreaks in the competition and this year we’re top.
“Now we kind of joke that there’s a bunch of South Africans, Irish, Aussies, Kiwis and French guys here in Grenoble and we’re trying to bring French flair back. It’s not quite French flair, it’s structured, but it’s actually giving guys the opportunity to play.”
For evidence of that, we look no further than tighthead prop Richard Choirat’s try against Bayonne in round six, a stunning finish after a superb two-phase attack from Grenoble.
On the first phase, Grenoble use that familiar linking forward in midfield [this time flanker Fabien Alexandre] to go out the back door to Hunt, drawing Bayonne centre Joe Rokocoko into shooting up in defence at the same time.
It’s certainly not low risk stuff, and tests Grenoble’s handling skills, but the pay-off is a big gain for Ratini wide on the right. On the second phase, we’re back into that lovely shape, with each player organised and aware of their role.
Again, Alexandre acts as the linking forward in midfield, releasing the ball to Hunt out the back door. The centre finds Choirat with a gorgeous pass and from there, the 30-year-old prop scorches inside Rokocoko, beats the tackle of fullback Martin Bustos Moyano and sidesteps wing Marvin O’Connor to score.
A few short months ago, Choirat simply wouldn’t have found himself in such a position, nor would Alexandre have been asked to make two passes as demanding as those above. Times have changed in Grenoble.
Variety, the spice of life
The fact that Grenoble play with a particularly structured game plan means the opposition will always believe in their ability to analyse that attack, pick out the repeated actions and then counter those strengths.
That brings into focus the need for variety in Grenoble’s attack, of which there has been plenty.
Using the banks of forwards we have seen in the blue rectangles above means Grenoble often have multiple options, even when they do run the shape we’ve seen in the examples here.
That linking forward in the middle of the park can carry the ball himself, slip a short pass to a carrier on his shoulder or go out the back door to one of his backs.
In the video above, we get a strong example of one of those options within the set-up, as second row Benjamin Hands slips a short pass to Roodt on his left shoulder. An offload to prop Kevin Goze, and Grenoble are onto the front foot and have Bayonne in dire straits.
From there, Wisniewski throws a screen pass behind Alexandre to impressive No. 8 Rory Grice and Grenoble are over the tryline again.
Below, we see Grenoble go more direct in their initial attacking thrust as Buckle recognises the lack of cover behind the ruck and leaps over the gainline. Again, it’s all about that variety and strong decision-making.
Racing expect the ball to be shifted directly from that initial ruck, Buckle makes an excellent decision and Grenoble are onto the front foot.
It is worth pointing out that FCG do not use the shape we have highlighted above on every single attack. There are a number of different set-ups within their armoury, but this shape allows us to highlight the underlying ideas and philosophy.
Grenoble’s tactics last season were fairly standard for a team of their standing, a club whose goal it was to retain their Top 14 status. Frustrating the opposition, defending rabidly and being direct and set-piece focused were all pillars of the philosophy, each with their own merits.
While that brought about strong starts to the last two seasons, Jackman, backs coach Prendergast and Director of Rugby Fabrice Landreau felt it was not sustainable over the course of a full campaign, explaining Grenoble’s weak form heading into the closing stage of the league.
A change in philosophy was needed, and the coaching team decided upon a style of play that brought out their players’ skills and desire to simply play the sport they love.
“Players want to play, they don’t just want to do pick and gos” says Jackman.
“They play the game for the same reasons as everyone else. I think, as a coaching staff, our philosophy is that we want to play with huge ambition, we want to have no fear about attacking from anywhere.
“They’re enjoying that and it’s creating a good buzz. When we’re working on our skills, they realise that it’s not just for ticking boxes, it’s because we’ll actually get to use them. It could be the difference between scoring a winning try or not.”
The fact that we have seen men like Choirat, Roodt and Alexandre offering up excellent skills in the examples above strengthens the point, but there have been many other illustrations.
On first glance, the try above appears to be all about the brilliance of Hunt, whose break and pass give hand Fabien Gengenbacher five points on a plate, but let’s look at the man who delivers the linebreak assist.
Hooker Arnaud Heguy runs a clever line, draws Clermont’s Julien Malzieu and then slips a lovely switch pass to release Hunt into the gap.
Above, we see some superb handling from Grenoble as Bordeaux look to turn on their line speed and shut the wide option down. Wisniewski is happy to take the risk, flanker Henry Vanderglas slips an excellent pass to Grice and the No. 8 lets his backs do the rest.
It’s a nice try, but most importantly underlines Grenoble’s willingness to, and competence at, passing under pressure. That two forwards are involved again makes it even more enjoyable to watch.
Backing the number 10
While we have seen that Grenoble’s roles are often interchangeable, the superb form of out-half Jonathan Wisniewski has been central to their strong start to the season.
The 29-year-old joined the club this summer from Racing Métro, where he had been pushed out of the picture by Johnny Sexton.
Wisniewski is a man whose career has not seen him play a brand of rugby like Grenoble’s before, signified by the fact that he came with a reputation as a kicking out-half. That tag is being torn apart by the Albi native’s demonstration of his attacking ability early this season.
“Jonathan is a French out-half, but he’s crucial to this,” outlines Jackman.
“Before he came here, he was probably known as a kicking 10, but from my point of view, if you want a guy to put a game plan in place and have the running game, passing game, control and kicking, he’s the man.”
After seven years with Racing, where he was in and out of the first team much of the time, Wisniewski is thriving under the backing of Grenoble’s coaching staff.
We get an example above against Bordeaux, with the out-half switching the point of attack and then flinging a superb pass to Jackson Willison on the right.
Below, we see a clean break from Wisniewski in the same game, one which returns us to the point of variety in Grenoble’s attacking game. The first receiver is not always happy simply to shift their pass to the bank of forwards, but can threaten the line too.
Wisniewski is on a one-year deal with Grenoble, but the club have understandably been working hard to extend the out-half’s contract beyond next summer.
Jackman is the first to recognise that “we’ve got a long way to go” this season and that a positive start will be meaningless if Grenoble get dragged down the table or even into a relegation battle.
The test of squad depth will be an important factor, although the management are content that they have improved in that regard thanks to their summer recruitment.
While this attack has worked superbly in the favourable weather conditions of recent months, the winter slog of the Top 14 will ask more questions again.
For now, life in Grenoble is ticking along happily and the squad are greatly content with the style of rugby that has them fourth in the league table.
“It’s giving those guys absolute confidence and they come to training knowing that if they do things as we train to do, there will be opportunities,” says Jackman. "We’re not doing things perfectly, but at least now they’re getting opportunities to play.
What do you think of Grenoble’s attacking style and philosophy? Should more clubs be operating in this manner? Does a highly structured game plan actually allow players to be more creative and play with more freedom as they take advantage of mismatches?