March 6, 2012
Wesley Fofana's performances have been a huge plus for France © Getty Images
Philippe Saint-André's first mid-term report as France coach contains plenty of red ink and precious few gold stars but only the foolhardy would write them off against England.
First off, the good news: France are unbeaten so far, having dispatched Italy and Scotland in the first two games, and perhaps could have closed out a win against Ireland had a few more things gone their way in the second half. Lock Yoann Maestri and centre Wesley Fofana have been success stories too; the Clermont number 12 has looked a constant threat with ball in hand and scoring a try in each of his three appearances. And although thoughts of a Grand Slam disappeared with the draw against Ireland, France remain in the hunt for a Six Nations title, provided you believe they have enough to get the better of England on Sunday.
We expected more however, didn't we? Call it a sense of relief or whatever, but there was perhaps a feeling that post-World Cup, France had chosen a coach who could finally get the best out of this hugely talented yet ageing side. After the madness of Marc, the 'Anglo-Saxon' tendencies of pragmatic Philippe were to lead France to its rightful place as Europe's consistently best side. Yet we continue to wait, as we did in Lièvremont's time, for that little bit of consistency in France's performances that would truly mark out a new direction.
The match against Ireland last weekend was a case in point. With all due respect to the superb start from Ireland, France's first half performance gave the impression that they'd been in the pub the night before. They were knocked back in every tackle, came second best in virtually every single aerial skirmish (take a bow Rob Kearney), while Aurelien Rougerie's pass which gifted Tommy Bowe his first try looked the kind of pass you'd throw in an unopposed training run. It was the detached-looking, shoulder shrugging France - the type of team performance Saint-André was supposed to consign to the scrapheap. Dare I say it, but plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme?
Of course not. France have yet to set this year's Six Nations on fire but it would be silly to write them off just yet. Saint-André isn't the first coach to struggle to get a consistently high level of performance out of a France side but the trick will be to see if he can get a genuine improvement in the last two Championship encounters. Having put faith in the same squad (barring injuries) for the first four matches of this year's Six Nations, Saint-André has already shown more consistency in selection than his predecessor Marc Lièvremont did in his four years in charge. His confidence in his charges shows a coach who is sure of his players' abilities and comfortable with his role as selector.
Undoubtedly, some experiments haven't worked. France need William Servat to start against England on Sunday because Dimitri Szarzewski has been well below par in his last two starts, and proved once more that the gulf in quality between 33 year-old Servat and every other French hooker is still, well just that, a gulf.
Saint-André would also do well to start Louis Picamoles in place of Julien Bonnaire and shift Imanol Harinordoquy to six. Picamoles' dynamic carrying ability was missed against Ireland and is exactly what is needed against England to put France on the front foot. Saint-André will know his side needs to be more aggressive at the breakdown too and while some of Morgan Parra's substandard service was testament to some superb Irish work in slowing French ball down, the Clermont scrum-half and his half-back partner Francois Trinh-Duc both need to be more decisive.
Saint-André may not have admitted it publicly but this year's Six Nations could be France's last chance of silverware for a season or two. Six of France's pack against Ireland were over the age of 30 and it would seem extremely unlikely that the majority of them will be around for the World Cup in 2015. With that in mind, the last two games of this year's Six Nations take on an added sense of importance.
While victory over a youthful England side at the weekend should be expected, a similar result against Wales in Cardiff could be beyond Saint-André and his men given the exertions of the last few weeks. If the re-scheduled match against Ireland wasn't bad enough, the fact that 14 of the French squad played for their clubs on the other 'free' weekend on the February 18 will mean that some players will have played every weekend since the beginning of the Six Nations. Whatever about the abilities of this current France side and its new coach, it seems its greatest barrier to consistent success continues to be the 120 year-old French Championship.
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