Out with the old...
October 26, 2011
Despite a wonderful try-scoring performance from captain Thierry Dusautoir, France fell agonisingly short © Getty Images
In the end, the outcome, painful that it was for supporters of Les Bleus, was about right. Despite history telling us otherwise, no-one quite expected France to front up but, to their credit, they did. Granted, there've been a few grumbles in the French press about the reffing and whether the best team on the day won. But if France had lifted the World Cup off the back of only one 80-minute performance, that truly would have been robbery. Instead, honour was restored in a valiant defeat.
That France saved their finest performance under Marc Lievremont until last is unlikely to do much for the 42 year-old's legacy. In France, this World Cup will be remembered for the implosion brought about by his tenure, with the unity of purpose shown in Sunday's game a product of someone else's doing. He cut a tragic and lonely figure at the end of the match, divorced from all his players, save for a hug from Dimitri Yachvilli. Lievremont departs the international scene as an honourable man but a broken coach, a disastrous experiment gifted to the French nation by former FFR and current IRB president Bernard Lapasset.
Lievremont's exit had been publically signalled as early as November last year but the FFR and current president Pierre Camou hardly covered themselves in glory with the appointment of Philippe Saint-Andre. It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to criticise certain decisions but the very public manner in which they chose Lievremont's successor at a time when the national team was preparing for New Zealand, must have further undermined his already precarious position with his players. Of course, Lievremont didn't help himself with his erratic team selections, naive tactical decisions and the creme de la creme - his very public criticisms of his own players. By the time the divorce between players and coach was finalised in the aftermath of the New Zealand pool game, Lievremont might as well have gone home.
Ironically, Lievremont can take some of the plaudits for the performance of his team against the All Blacks but not in the manner you'd normally assume for a head coach. The final insult - his description of the players as "spoilt brats" early last week followed by another public admission that he "should have kept his mouth shut" - set the tone for the build up to the final. From the players' point of view, Lievremont was added to the heap which included an unimpressed media and uninspired public - a perfect storm from which they were able to conjure an 'us versus the world' mentality.
Looking ahead, things should be a lot smoother. In Saint-Andre, France have got themselves a wily operator and experienced man-manager. Press conferences are likely to be a little less animated but what France needs is a leader of men once more. Lievremont was obsessed with honesty and washing his dirty laundry in public but there can be no place for honesty on a battlefield. That's where Saint-Andre will be different.
It's unclear as to whether he will take a broom to the squad, although it's extremely unlikely that we will see the large-scale reconstruction that marked Lievremont's first two years in charge. Sunday's final may have been the last World Cup hurrah for quite a few, with the likes of Poux, Servat, Nallet, Pape, Yachvilli and Rougerie all unlikely to be around in four years time but many of those players could still have a role to play over the next couple of years. If this World Cup has told us anything, it's that the concept of a 'four-year cycle' has very little meaning in the real world.
Instead, the byword of Saint-Andre's time as French coach will be evolution rather than revolution. As Sunday's game showed, France are a long way from being a busted flush, and with some exciting young talent currently plying their wares in the Top 14, France should remain favourites to take the Six Nations title next year.
Saint-Andre will be able to welcome back into the side a superb loosehead prop in Thomas Domingo, who missed the World Cup through injury. Montpellier's highly rated lock forward Aliki Fakate will force himself into the reckoning while at scrum-half, Toulouse's Jean Marc Doussain has the ability to be a talisman for his country for a number of years. Another Toulousain, Yann David, has had a terrific start to the Top 14 season and could form a deadly partnership with Maxime Mermoz - if the latter stays injury free
Four years ago, Lievremont promised to find France's mojo and put it right after the Bernard Laporte era. He failed, miserably, but the records will show that during his time he won a Grand Slam and brought his team to within a point of a World Cup victory. Bon Chance, Philippe!
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