The Fall and Challenges of Les Bleus

Posted: June 21, 2015 in European Rugby, International Rugby, Rugby, Toulon, World Cup

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On the 23rd October, 2011, a little over 61,000 people travelled to Eden Park to watch the world cup final between France and the hosts, New Zealand. France’s tournament had been marred by rumours that Marc Lièvremont had lost the dressing room.

The year previous, Lièvremont coached France to a grand slam in the 2010 Six Nations championship, which was a fantastic achievement for a team ranked 8th in the world in mid-2009. The following tournament did not reflect this success, with England losing to England and, for the first time in their history, Italy. To add insult to injury, France had been leading Italy by 12 points with 20 minutes of the game remaining.

France were a super power in world rugby, the fifth best team in the world by official rankings. But their style of play was probably only second to New Zealand. They were famous for running the ball from deep, offloading as often as possible, and their belief that they could score from anywhere. But they should have also have been able to close that game out. The omens were not looking good for the world cup.

France went on to beat Wales in the semi-final of the 2011 world cup, and the assistant manager took the press conference instead of Lièvremont. Lièvremont, however, did go on to label some of his players as “spoil brats” after they celebrated the Wales win. It seemed the wheels were starting to fall off the French carriage.

France went on to lose the final to the hosts, and that’s when everything came into the spotlight. Imanol Harinordoquy criticised Lièvremont heavily and stated the team had managed themselves from the pool stages onwards. One would just have to look at the out-half choices during the tournament; playing Parra out of position and leaving François Trihn-Duc, a specialised 10, on the bench just shows not all was right during the tournament.

Lièvremont was quickly dropped after the tournament and in came Phillipe Saint-Andre, who was a French legend in his playing days. Unlike his predecessor, Saint-Andre managed a win against Italy in the 2012 Six Nations, but losses to England and Wales, with a draw against Ireland, resulted in France finishing fourth in the tournament.

The following tournament was even more damning for Saint-Andre and French fans. France lost their first three games, 18–23 against Italy, 6–16 against Wales and 13-23 against England. A 13-13 draw with Ireland and a 26-13 victory over Scotland offered a glimmer of hope, but it didn’t prove enough and France finished the tournament in last place.

The 2014 tournament didn’t offer the French followers much either. An unconvincing win over Scotland with losses to Ireland and England seemed reflective of 2013. But against England, France did play with the flair they seemed to have lost, running the ball from deep and offloading at will. But the history books will only show they allowed England to score over 50 points.

What is to blame for this decline? The coaches can’t take all the blame. Lièvremont coached Les Blues to a grand slam even if he did lose the dressing room afterwards. Saint-Andre may have installed a game plan not suitable for the players, but with the likes of Dusatoir as captain, the players have the skill to change it on the pitch.

The lack of young French-born players coming through the club system is also a factor. If you look at Toulon, not many French players appear in their first XV, with Bastareaud probably being the most noteworthy. The billionaire owner doesn’t seem too worried about this and is making his Top 14 side as comical as his work in terms of their signings. If they continue the way they are going, other teams won’t have enough players to field a team against them.

Clermont have the luxury of having the best centre partnership in France with Rougerie and Fofana, which benefits the national team. Having Bastareud play inside of an English or Australian player doesn’t.

A shining light in all of this is this year’s Top 14 champions. Stade Francais fielded ten French born players in their final against Clermont Auvergne last week. They had also beaten Toulon in the semi-final to get there.

But winning a Top 14 is a lot different to winning a world cup. It is a different standard of play, with a much faster pace and higher intensity. Not all of those ten players are of international standard either.

It would suit the French team if the world cup didn’t take place until the following year as Stade Francais could really test themselves against Europe’s finest. These players would benefit massively from weekly games against European giants, which would in turn benefit the national team.

Taking nothing away from the ten months of hard graft it took to win the Top 14, Stade Francais’ progress will be tested in next year’s Champion’s Cup. But the national team will be tested in September. They need a coach who will select the best players in their respective positions, and install a game plan that players are comfortable with.

Ireland, Italy, Canada and Romania will be France’s opposition in the pool stages so getting out of the group is the least they should expect. But that aside, big clubs must follow suit and adopt Stade Fancais’ practice for the future benefit of French rugby.

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