Oh, how we all long for the return of French flair, for those crazy moments of Gallic genius, for the power and the beauty, for something from another time. Oh well, it may be another season of disappointment. The new coach Philippe Saint-Andre is about as romantic as a text book.
He likes organisation and discipline. It is not a coincidence that Saint-Andre spent time coaching at Gloucester and Sale, in the meat-and-potatoes districts of English rugby. He is something of an Anglophile. He is like Pierre Berbizier or Bernard Laporte in his need to impose structure.
If the French want want flair, then maybe they shouldn’t have given Marc Lievremont such a hard time. Everyone climbed on his back, but I think he was a smart operator. I reckon he deliberately provoked the players at the World Cup.
When the French fear the worst, when they are scared of getting a hiding, when their manhood is questioned, then they are dangerous. Lievremont settled on that early. He also studied every single New Zealand move and was prepared to emulate it.
Lievremont said that France couldn’t beat us twice in New Zealand at the World Cup, but they could beat us once. And so I think he set up his team to fail against us in the pool stages. He is very smart, in my view. Marc Lievremont is nobody’s fool.
Saint-Andre is not proven and he has made some interesting selections for the opening game against Italy. Maxime Mermoz is a player whom the All Blacks really rated, good on attack and defence, and an excellent decision maker.
But Mermoz has lost his place to Wesley Fofana, an exciting ball carrier and a teammate of Aurelien Rougerie at Clermont. Is Saint-Andre looking for club combinations? There are five from Clermont and five from Toulouse in his initial selection.
That means that Imanol Harinordoquy has also been dropped. You could argue that Harinordoquy, the best in the world when he feels like it, and Mermoz were two of France’s best three players at the World Cup.
But France are always a threat. They take their emotional force from their scrummage and although their lineout can be predictable, it is still very hard to stop. It sets up so much for them. Yachvili kicks from the base of lineouts that have been shortened to increase the number of chasers.
France also runs a move where the hooker peels off the back of a lineout drive. He can then run to the openside or feed the scrum-half who will hit Fofana on a short ball or run it behind him to Trinh-Duc who will open out the move wide. They have five or six options off the one play and you have to read their body language and adapt quickly.
France also defends very well. Trinh-Duc is a perceived weakness, but you can tell from the way he carries into contact that he’s not scared. The back three is powerful and Rougerie recovers very well in defence.
Usually they hold and push. You have to commit them on the inside or they will have five men on the winger. But they also like to pull out the rush defence from time to time, particularly against England, who are maybe slower to react in midfield than some other teams.
But don’t expect to be taken to the moon this year. Some of the fault lies with French club rugby. In the main there is a lot of kicking and driving of short balls in the Top 14. They have the athletes still, but the club scene is not a field for growing French flair any more.
The amount of rugby in France also means that the national coach has less time with his team than almost every other major nation. This may be where we see the best of Saint-Andre. He does not get too dirty on the training field, but he does take the wider view. He will try to change the landscape and he is dead right. The national team is at a huge disadvantage to other countries.
But France is so strong that they could well win the Grand Slam this year. The schedule helps them in the next couple of months, but it may not help Saint-Andre change the structure in the long term.
Prediction: 1.France 2.Ireland 3.England, Wales 5.Scotland 6.Italy