A nation expects
January 25, 2012
Philippe Saint-Andre is seen as a safe pair of hands after the maverick that was Marc Lievremont © Getty Images
We've come full circle. It seems like only yesterday that a fresh-faced young coach named Marc Lièvremont rocked up at the Hurlingham Club in London for his first Six Nations media launch.
Back in early 2008, supporters of Les Bleus had endured what seemed like an eternity of frustrating blandness from Bernard Laporte and while question marks remained over Lièvremont's experience, there was palpable excitement at the thought of a coach who wanted to rediscover French rugby's panache and natural flair.
Four years on and what France could do for a steady hand at the tiller. It seems as though the regimes of Mad Bernie and Madder Marc took their toll on this country to such an extent that the French Rugby Federation (FFR) went off and hired the most Anglo-Saxon Frenchman they could find. Philippe Saint André will probably never be classified as a visionary but he's exactly what France needs at the moment.
As memories of the World Cup begin to subside, Saint-André's low-key start to his international coaching career has been deliberately designed to focus on the job at hand instead of personalities. There has been little flag waving or posturing when it comes to what he wants to achieve, just some good old fashioned straight-talking. Saint André told journalists a few weeks back: "The best way to prepare for winning World Cups is by winning matches. The imperative is to win against Italy. This will give us a good base that we can work on for the rest of the tournament."
His words were hardly inspirational but the tone couldn't have been clearer. There would be no great experimentation, no writing off his first two Six Nations in a vain attempt to cap every living Frenchman between the ages of 18 and 35. No, Saint André will have spent this week at Marcoussis telling his 30-man squad exactly what he expects of them, namely a Six Nations title in the bag by the middle of March.
The former Sale, Gloucester and Toulon coach has put his faith in the vast majority of the players who tasted defeat against the All Blacks in Auckland back in November, sprinkled with a couple of uncapped players, in addition to a few blasts from the past. There is an unexpected call-up for Stade Francais prop David Attoub as well as a more expected one in the shape of in-form Toulouse fly-half Lionel Beauxis. There is also the rather unplanned return of 35-year-old Lionel Nallet - in for the injured Romain Millo-Chluski who looks set to miss the entirety of this year's Six Nations.
In times gone by, an opening Six Nations match against the Italians on France's home patch would have been considered a mere formality. Not this year. The combination of it being Saint-André's first game in charge, in addition to memories of last year's 22-21 historic loss in Rome will give this match a heightened sense of anticipation. There's also the knowledge that the man who'll be plotting a successive Italian win will be one of their own. For Jacques Brunel, it will be his first international as Italy boss and he'll be especially keen to get off to a decent start in front of his home crowd.
Taking into account the personnel that will be missing through injury, there's little evidence to suggest that Saint-André will make wholesale changes but there are a few positions that the new French coach will lend a keen eye to. At loose-head prop, Biarrot Fabien Barcella has been cut from the 23 man squad, having failed to recapture his form after a couple of injury hit season. Clermont's Vincent Debaty takes Barcella's place but expect veteran Toulousain Jean-Baptiste Poux to start. Saint André will have a decision to make at scrum-half too, where Biarritz No.9 Dimitri Yachvilli has been in superb form for his club. The incumbent, Morgan Parra, brings extra abrasion and leadership that Saint André would be foolish to jettison however, so it's quite likely that these two will pirouette as and when necessary for the duration of the tournament.
Centre is another area of interest. Maxime Mermoz and Aurelien Rougerie formed an effective if limited partnership in the last few months of Marc Lièvremont's reign but it's likely that Saint André will look further afield. Clermont Auvergne's Wesley Fofana has been hugely impressive for his club this season and is likely to win his first cap for France in the opener against Italy. Toulousain Yann David is seen by some as the natural successor to Yannick Jauzion and has enjoyed an excellent season so far, but a shoulder injury has ruled him out of the first few games. If Saint-André does go with Fofana, expect club team-mate Rougerie to join the young centre in midfield.
With Ireland and England due in Paris in addition to Italy, Saint André has the added advantage of a favourable schedule this year. That brings its own pressures however because as France's near miss in New Zealand shows, he already has a side capable of being the best in Europe. In stark contrast to his predecessor, he will therefore have a limited amount of time to get his squad used to his ways and systems, and the honeymoon with the public and media will be mercilessly short. With England rebuilding, Wales hit by key injuries to their tight five and Ireland visitors to Paris, there's been rarely a better opportunity for a new coach to hit the ground running.
France expects, Monsieur Saint André. Don't let them down.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd
With the Lions' tour to Australia fast-approaching, ESPN's Austin Healey and Mark Durden-Smith sat down to share their memories of the 2001 trip Down Under
Ask John answers questions on the Leopards' tour to Italy in 1974, brotherly Test sides, Pat McGrath, England's games against the Barbarians and Jacques Brunel
"We were only five metres away in the last Test of getting that try and with Jonny's inevitable conversion, we'd have won it." Tom Hamilton talks to Lions fullback Matt Perry