French inconsistency a myth
October 19, 2011
France are considered the great enigmas of world rugby but perhaps than reputation is unwarranted © Getty Images
So how inconsistent are France? We've heard a lot on the subject during this World Cup. But is it real or, rather like their alleged indiscipline (fewest Six Nations yellow cards of any team since the tournament was expanded in 2000) and the much-cited 'French flair' (anyone seen that lately?), something assumed?
It really all depends how you measure it. If you think long-term, France are actually highly consistent. Six World Cup semi-finals in seven attempts is a level of performance unmatched by any other competitor.
And there's an even more striking pattern of consistency over the past five decades in the Five/Six Nations.
If you look at each nation's record by decade, the best performances are by England in the 1990s and Wales in the 1970s. France then account for five of the six next best performances, broken up only by Ireland's performances in the 2000s. So in other words, their worst decade is better than England, Wales or Ireland's second best over this period, and better than Scotland's best.
Still more striking is their regular level of performance. If we exclude matches against Italy since 2000 - not because they are unworthy, but because an extra match per year distorts the numbers, we see remarkably little variation in France's record per decade. Their best was the 1980s, with 56 points from 40 matches. Their worst was the 1970s, with 49 points. They won 52 points in the 1960s and 2000s, and 50 in the 1990s. That variation of seven points out of 80 compares to England's best to worst variation of 39 points, Wales's 37, Ireland's 34 and Scotland's 26. Inconsistent is not exactly the word that comes to mind.
Proponents of French inconsistency can retort, quite reasonably, that that isn't what they meant. And France certainly do seem to contrive some pretty striking variations in form between, and even during, matches. But here again stereotype sometimes gets in the way of reality. Like Italian soccer teams - and with equally little reality - it is often stated that French teams are lethal when ahead, but prone to lose heart when behind.
This is widely believed, and sometimes by some pretty smart people. Take, for example, the 2007 edition of 'Watching the World Cup' in which Spiro Zavos, one of the most intelligent people writing about rugby, states that 'Generally once a French side loses the lead, it tends to lose heart'.
Yet if you think of international matches in which a team has either come back from a large deficit, or blown a big advantage, they tend to involve the French. They were well behind in both their legendary World Cup wins over the All Blacks, came from a double-figure deficit at Twickenham in 1997 and have also been on the sticky end of such a reversal at home to Wales in 2005. They had a pretty decent shot at blowing a double-figure lead against England in the quarter-final less than two weeks ago. Time perhaps to consider an alternative analysis arguing that France are dangerous in adversity, but prone to either coast or lose concentration when ahead.
That still accommodates one of the more convincing reasons offered for France's unique ability to unsettle the All Blacks. It came some years ago from John Bracewell, a cricket coach but as much of a rugby fan as any other New Zealand male, and one of decidedly analytical bent. He had rugby ambitions of his own "until I was caught from behind by a rolling maul and realised that I might be better suited to cricket."
Bracewell argues that 'what bothers New Zealand teams is that the French seem to have different gears. As a New Zealander you expect to play full out for the whole 80 minutes and teams who don't seem to do that are unsettling."
That dovetails with Zavos's perceptive analysis of Alexander Obolensky's extraordinary try for England in 1936, running at an angle across the pitch to cross on the opposite wing: "New Zealand teams invariably play to a system. There is an Aristotelian logic about their game, whether in attack or defence. This makes them vulnerable on the rare occasions when they are confronted with something different from what they have planned to deal with."
Engagingly different though it might be to see the 2011 World Cup final as Aristotelians v Cartesians, detailed analysis along these lines is probably outside the remit (and certainly the competence) of this column. What is worth noting is that the venue, Eden Park, has fewer fears on historical grounds for France than for any other opponent.
It is not as if they expect to win there, having lost seven times and won twice in nine visits. But in the context of New Zealand having lost only five of the 60 matches they have played at Eden Park since France's first visit in 1961, and none of their last 27, it looks pretty good. Australia have won twice in 19 visits, England once in five and the Lions and Springboks not at all in six apiece (although each has managed a draw).
Of France's two victories, the first was in 1979, when the All Blacks perhaps should have known better than to have entertained the French on Bastille Day and were duly stormed by four tries to two and 24-19. The second was in 1994 and is notable both because it was the last time any visitor won at Eden Park, and also because it swung on a truly magnificent example of 'something different'.
France had already won the first test at Christchurch 22-8, responding spectacularly to captain Philippe Saint-Andre's pre-match plea to mark Philippe Sella's feat of becoming the first rugby player to win 100 caps with a win over the All Blacks.
The All Blacks were in transition, with the great team who had won the World Cup in 1987 all but gone and the brilliant combination who were to light up the 1995 tournament yet to emerge. Only seven of their 15 would play in the following year's World Cup final. But they responded as ever to a setback and played considerably better in the Eden Park match, overcoming the setback of a 70-metre interception try by Emile Ntamack - now France's attack coach - from a pass by 19-year-old rookie wing Jonah Lomu to lead 20-16 into the final few minutes.
Saint Andre, who will attend Sunday's final as France's coach-elect, gave the call with five minutes to go: "We have to go for everything - hands, hands!" He was as good as his word when All Black outside-half Stephen Bachop kicked loosely into French territory, picking up inside his own 22 to counter-attack, slicing between two would-be tacklers and evading another. From a quick recycle the ball went 70 metres through eight pairs of hands, with the crucial moment perhaps Laurent Cabannes' adept reverse pass to Ntamack, who used the change of angle to cut inside across the field. Scrum-half Guy Accoceberry might have scored, but instead sent Jean-Luc Sadourny over for what proved the winning try. Quite understandably Saint Andre labelled it "the try from the end of the world".
In terms of combined brilliance, timing and importance - it made France only the second national team, following the 1937 Springboks, to win a series in New Zealand - it is matched in rugby history perhaps only by Serge Blanco's winner against Australia in the 1987 World Cup semi-final.
It may take something equally unexpected for France, the one country more overdue a World Cup win than New Zealand, to add to its list of Eden Park victories come Sunday, but you write off Cartesians at your peril.
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