France boast the talent to impress
August 30, 2011
Will Marc Lievremont bow out as France coach on a winning note? © Getty Images
How time flies. With just days remaining before France kick off their Rugby World Cup adventure with a Pool A clash against Japan, the four year cycle (some would say treadmill) is almost at its end, and with it, Marc Lièvremont's time as France coach.
Philippe Saint André will take to the hot seat in November to begin preparations for England 2015, but before that he'll be a keen observer of the next few weeks, which will likely tell how much work is ahead of him.
As usual, the French do things their own way. Some of New Zealand's top scientists are still trying to work out if the French were attempting some kind of cunning ruse in announcing a new coach days before a World Cup but my money is on absurdity. The timing of the news could have been handled so much better because Lièvremont's departure will resonate around the squad and impact on focus, even if it was touted in advance.
That's a pity as the last few weeks had seen some optimism break out at the ideal time. The back-to-back wins against Ireland would have come as real confidence booster and dovetailed nicely with the six weeks of intensive preparations that went before. Most importantly perhaps, we learned that France, if they can keep key individuals fit and get their selection issues sorted out, will possess a threat at the World Cup.
It's been nearly four years coming but at this stage we can say with some confidence that Lièvremont knows his best side - almost. To his credit (and Didier Retière's), France look like a tough nut to crack up front and if prop Fabien Barcella and hooker William Servat can discover some match fitness over the next few weeks, they'll bow to no one. Yet problems remain and Lièvremont is going to have to face up to them if France are to do anything at this World Cup.
Every coach has his favourites and it's entirely reasonable for him to need guys on the pitch who he can trust, come what may. Yet Lièvremont's obsession with shoehorning Damien Traille into the side has been damaging and needs to stop. Traille, a veteran of 84 selections, has been a magnificent servant for club and country over the years but even he must be privately frustrated with the way Lièvremont has shuffled him around the backline like a pinball.
Nominally a 12, Traille was first selected at fullback as he was a "safe pair of hands", then fly-half because of his howitzer boot. While it's highly unlikely that the 32 year-old will be seen at 10 or 12, his selection at fullback, if it comes to pass against the All Blacks, would be a fitting indictment of the Lièvremont era. Cedric Heymans, in good form after an excellent season with Toulouse, played wonderfully well against Ireland in Dublin and is the man for the job.
It's not just at fullback where the selection conundrum continues. Lièvremont has been working on his midfield pairing for the entire duration of his time as French coach and it remains a huge issue. The French coach has been unlucky at times, with the talented Perpignan inside centre Maxime Mermoz spending more time on the treatment table than the pitch. He's also had to deal with the decline of one of France's great servants in Yannick Jauzion, now 32, and watched from the sidelines as Mathieu Bastareaud squandered a God-given talent.
Having weighed up his midfield options, Lièvremont will instead look to Aurelien Rougerie who performed superbly in Dublin, to shore up his midfield. A few Hail Marys will be muttered too in the hope that Mermoz can find fitness quickly because without those two, France look utterly bereft of any attacking potency in midfield.
A lot will also depend on the form of the much improved Francois Trinh-Duc. The Montpellier fly-half has blossomed into a fine playmaker over the last few years although his tactical kicking remains suspect. Nevertheless, with David Skrela selected as his back-up, France should consider giving up and going home if anything happens to Trinh-Duc. Quite why Lièvremont went with Skrela ahead of Lionel Beauxis or Racing Metro's Jonathan Wisniewski is another mystery of our time but it does leave Les Bleus with very few options should they want to change the focus of attack from the bench.
Is all this enough to draw the All Blacks into a false sense of security? You'd have to think not but given the previous meetings of the two sides in the World Cup, funnier things have happened. All Black supporters will be suffering from plenty of butterflies on the morning of September 24 but given the different context (a pool match instead of a knockout game), it's hard to see the New Zealanders getting mugged this time.
And what of the French? Simply put, France have the talent to impress but the key will be whether they remember their lines or not. If they do, expect an appearance in the semi-finals.
Ian Moriarty's France XV: Cedric Heymans; Vincent Clerc, Aurelien Rougerie, Maxime Mermoz, Maxime Médard; Francois Trinh-Duc, Morgan Parra; Fabien Barcella, William Servat, Nicolas Mas, Lionel Nallet, Romain Millo-Chluski, Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy, Louis Picamoles
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