France on the right track for RWC'11
June 24, 2009
A satisfactory outcome then, to France's tour to New Zealand. And while Marc Lièvremont's men still have a tricky tie to negotiate against Australia on Saturday, the 40 year-old will have left New Zealand with memories of a great win in Dunedin and his team's reputation greatly enhanced.
More importantly perhaps, for those with an eye on France's development towards the Rugby World Cup in 2011, there were the first tangible signs that progress is being made after 19 months of relative stasis.
There may not have been a stunning last minute try to clinch the series like Jean-luc Sadourny's effort back in 1994 but there will be many reasons why this trip to the most foreboding of summer destinations will be fondly remembered. For most observers, the sight of a France side outwitting and for long periods out-muscling the All Blacks was the most pleasing aspect of a tour that promised little but delivered in spades. But by far the most surprising element of the series was how France managed to front up two weekends in a row. As most Kiwis will acknowledge, Les Bleus have always had the propensity to turn sides over on a one-off basis yet this time round it was different.
Led magnificently by their talismanic flanker Thierry Dusautoir, France successfully imposed their game on the All Blacks, something they have consistently failed to do during Lièvremont's tenure as coach. Exhausted and out on their feet by end of the game in Wellington, they defended valiantly when other sides would have wilted, and fully deserved to take claim of the Dave Gallaher Trophy, albeit on points difference.
Although there can be no doubt about Dusautoir's continued accession into the category of world class loose-forwards, it will have been the manner in which many of the younger players put their hands up that will have pleased the French coaching team the most.
In Fabien Barcella and Nicolas Mas, Lièvremont has finally found a menacing front row pairing whilst the young Clemontois Thomas Domingo enhanced his credentials no end. Likewise Romain Millo-Chluski and Louis Picamoles did their World Cup ambitions no harm at all and in the two Maxime's - Mermoz and Medard - France have found two gems that are destined to shine for a long time at this level.
Yet what was most encouraging of all about this France side was the appearance for the first time of a 'mode de jeu' under Marc Lièvremont. When he became coach after the Rugby World Cup in 2007, Lièvremont spoke of his determination to break the shackles that had been placed on the side during the Bernard Laporte era. Two disappointing Six Nations campaigns followed, choc full of experimentation, underpowered French packs and little or no sign of the ubiquitous 'French flair'. A consistent, determinable game plan seemed at times to be an afterthought.
Privately, Lièvremont will be delighted with his sides' performance in the two Tests. He's not had an easy ride since becoming the most important man in French rugby and his relative youth and inexperience at this level has left him open to the suspicion that he wasn't qualified for the top job.
Despite largely being seen as a union appointment, Lièvremont has not been afraid to voice his opinions, sometimes controversially, wading into the battle between the FFR and the LNR (Ligue National de Rugby) over the duration of the club season and the number of overseas players in France. The performances against the All Blacks will give him some much needed breathing space and no little amount of confidence in his abilities as a coach.
Ironically, the performances on the summer tour will have weakened his calls for any large-scale reconstruction of the French domestic season. Irrespective of the game against the Wallabies next weekend, the win in Dunedin will have given ammunition to those who wish to defend the current structure of the Top 14. Lièvremont's wish for a Top 12 Championship were publicly rebuffed by LNR president Pierre-Yves Revol back in March despite mounting concerns after the Six Nations that the interests of French clubs were having adverse effects on the national team. It's likely therefore that the performances of the national team in the past fortnight have hammered another nail in the coffin for that particular aspiration.
Arguably, Lièvremont's toughest job of the entire trip will be in convincing his charges to raise their game for one last hurrah on Saturday against the Wallabies. But as Ireland found to their cost last summer, the energies expended by the players in the series against the All Blacks could prove a fatal blow to France's chances of finishing the tour in style.
In addition, Les Bleus will have been further weakened by the loss of four senior players through injury. Mathieu Bastareaud, Yannick Jauzion, Louis Picamoles and Thomas Domingo all flew home on Monday meaning that Lièvremont must shuffle his team selection once more. If however Les Bleus can give Australia the kind of examination they gave New Zealand, Marc Lièvremont will have provided the best evidence yet that France are on the verge of becoming a major force once more.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September