Key test for fragile France
March 8, 2011
France head coach Marc Lievremont © Getty Images
Here's a question: how much would you be prepared to gamble on Italy winning their clash with France on Saturday?
Chances are it wouldn't be very much. Italy have landed a handful of scalps in their decade-long stint in the Six Nations but France have not been one of them. Indeed, since 2000, they've conceded a total of 228 points in the five clashes with the French at Stadio Flaminio, and scored just 70.
So it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to predict that the odds would be long on the Italians finally achieving the scalp of scalps on Saturday afternoon. That is, except for one thing - we are dealing with the most emotionally brittle French team of the professional era.
Quite how France find themselves in this position is a mystery to us all, including I dare say, Marc Lièvremont. The France coach has been on the receiving end for most of his 40-month tenure and despite the Grand Slam victory last year few tears will be shed when he departs, as expected, after the World Cup in the autumn. With that showdown in New Zealand fast approaching, there is an inescapable feeling that Lièvremont's vision is fatally flawed, a four-year experiment that would end in failure even if he had the best players in the world to pick from.
The nub of the problem is self-belief, or rather, a lack of it. Australia's 59-16 demolition of France last autumn was Lièvremont's nadir as head coach and while France played well in patches against Scotland last month, the manner of the performances since suggest that the shadow looming from that November nightmare has not dissipated.
Instead, France's win in Dublin told us more about Ireland's current penchant for pressing the self-destruct button than Les Bleus gradually rediscovering their groove. Devoid of confidence and with another few baffling selection decisions thrown into the mix, France went to Twickenham more in hope than belief and while they fought manfully, one wonders what the score would have been if Chris Ashton's try had not been disallowed.
Lièvremont will have spent the last week or so poring over videos of Italy's matches against Ireland and Wales in Rome and what he saw will fill him with a degree of apprehension. The Azurri have a proven pack of forwards and could have beaten both sides had they had a reliable goal-kicker. France will arrive in Rome knowing a good start is vital in terms of quenching the Italian fire and rebuilding their frail confidence.
Even if they win in Rome and follow it up against Wales in Paris on the final weekend, it would take two impressive and more importantly, consistent performances to put Lièvremont's tenure back on track. Two tests against Ireland in August will follow but it remains to be seen if some of the squad have already passed the point of no return in terms of faith in him as coach.
This week saw Sebastien Chabal come out all guns firing in an interview with Le Journal Du Dimanche having being berated for his performance against England. "In reality, my performance was middling," said Chabal, who blamed his huge celebrity in France for a creating false impression of him as a player. This delusion, which was shared by his head coach, is an example of what kind of rock France are currently psychologically hiding under and why, under the current regime, there is little hope of change.
Les Bleus remain reigning Six Nations champions and still have arguably the best squad in the northern hemisphere - when it's correctly selected. Thanks to Lièvremont's excellent forwards coach Didier Retière, France have a group of forwards who should have the beating of anyone on their day. Selecting dinosaurs like Chabal instead of Toulouse No.8 Louis Picamoles doesn't help of course, and as long as it continues, France will remain literally a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.
It's worth remembering, of course, that while Lièvremont can be blamed for many things, he cannot be blamed for the current structure of the season in France. "It's quite simple," Imanol Harinordoquy told Midi Olympique last week. "Forty-six weeks without a rest, that's really hard to manage. In comparison, the English met up a fortnight before their first match in the tournament. They will have spent this weekend recuperating. Us, we all pretty much played a round of Top 14."
Just two of the squad from the England game (Racing Metro's Lionel Nallet and Sebastian Chabal) were rested at the weekend, meaning that many of the players have seen little or no rest on the Six Nations rest weekends. Here, France are at a natural disadvantage compared to the other sides but the biggest disadvantage of all is a coach who's still not sure of what he's doing nearly four years into the job.
In all likelihood, France will escape Rome this weekend with a victory like in previous visits but with confidence at an all-time low, a lack of self-belief evident throughout and a squad heavily fatigued at this stage of the season, who would bet against it being an uncomfortable 80 minutes for supporters of France?
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jim Mallinder and Justin Burnell were sat on the same top table, but in different circumstances. Tom Hamilton reports on the Aviva Premiership season launch
Tom Hamilton reports back from the launch of the Guinness PRO12 where there is a renewed sense of optimism with all of the off-field changes to the league
So much for the great Australian revival, writes Greg Growden. It now has the potential of going off the rails after the capitulation at Eden Park
The latest Week in Pictures takes in photographs from the Rugby Championship, the Top 14 and the southern hemisphere domestic scene