February 24, 2011
France coach Marc Lievremont has often defied expectations © Getty Images
France travel to face England this weekend amid a storm of controversy, whipped up by their coach, Marc Lievremont. As one of the game's most enigmatic figures, the former Test flanker has presided over a topsy-turvy spell in French rugby when the sublime has often been married with the ordinary. In our latest Scrum Seven, we've charted some of the turning points in his career.
An unpopular appointment?
Following France's disappointing semi-final exit at the 2007 Rugby World Cup there was a changing of the guard as the long-serving Bernard Laporte departed from the coaching hot-seat. As his replacement, Lievremont was a left-field choice. He had cut his teeth by coaching Dax into the top flight but his appointment was not welcomed across the board. While outgoing FFR chief Bernard Lapasset was a strong supporter, Ligue Nationale de Rugby boss Serge Blanco criticised the lack of communication between the union and clubs. "I realise that I am at the centre of a lot of attention and of hopes for the future," Lievremont said. "I also understand that some people are disappointed, legitimately or not, but I consider myself to be a man with convictions surrounding both the sport and on the human front. I have not asked for anything from anyone. I respect all the coaches who were viable candidates for the post, but it is not for me to justify what has happened."
A disappointing start
The 2008 Six Nations was underwhelming for many, unless your allegiances lead you to wear red during February and March. In Lievremont's first tournament in charge he was upstaged by the other new kid on the block, Wales' Warren Gatland, who masterminded a Grand Slam. France were beaten by England in Paris for the first time since 2000 - never a popular event - before a meek surrender to the Welsh in Cardiff. Following up consecutive titles with a third-placed finish was not the start desired and the tournament also heralded the start of Lievremont's reputation as the 'tinkerman'. Among the new faces injected into the side were the previously untested Montpellier duo of Francois Trinh-Duc and Fulgence Ouedraogo, while the tight-five and midfield were also given a facelift.
Conquering the All Blacks
Arguably Lievremont's greatest achievement was a solitary victory over the All Blacks in 2009. A one-off it may have been, but you don't often knock over the All Blacks on their own patch. The 27-22 win at Carisbrook was France's first over the All Blacks in New Zealand since Jean-Luc Sadourny rounded off the try from the end of the world at Eden Park back in 1994. The disappointing thing for many, no doubt Lievremont also, was that this was a middling New Zealand team, whose win to level the two-match series highlighted France's inconsistency as well as their apparent feeling that the job had already been completed. The tour was also marred by Mathieu Bastareaud's bizarre fabrication of an assault - the beginning of a love-hate relationship between player and coach.
A November to remember
A matter of months after their win in New Zealand, France turned in a bristling, powerful performance to beat South Africa in Toulouse. The Springboks were fresh from running roughshod over the British & Irish Lions and their Tri-Nations rivals but with loose-head Fabien Barcella to the fore they were no match for Lievremont's men in a cauldron at Le Stade de Toulouse. That 20-13 win underlined France's credentials as world beaters, a mantle they surrendered only weeks later. New Zealand, stung by their summer loss, wiped the floor with Les Bleus in Marseille. As an occasion, it was huge. As a statement from the All Blacks it preceded a magnificent 2010. For France, it was more of the same. Inconsistent and apparently lacking desire.
Le Grand Chelem
Ah, but to write off France is to court disaster. Months later they were back on the horse and celebrating a Grand Slam. Too good against Scotland and Ireland, stunning against Italy, helped on their way by Wales and lucky against England - France deserved their title and Lievremont finally had his prize after three years of trying. Kings of the European castle at last, French rugby appeared to be in rude health as Toulouse and Biarritz stormed to the Heineken Cup final in Paris. The only way is up, as they say…
Springboks, Pumas and Wallabies
Only it wasn't. After a miserable June tour in which they shipped 40 points against South Africa and Argentina, France regrouped in Marcoussis for the return visit of the Pumas as well as Robbie Deans' sprightly Australia. The grizzled kick-fest victory over the Pumas appeared worryingly close to the gameplan that Lievremont believes to suit France, with lashings of power, but they capitulated against the Wallabies to the tune of a 59-16 defeat. The knives were out, this time seemingly with plenty of justification, as France were booed from the field by a Paris crowd that has been their closest friend and mortal enemy during Lievremont's reign.
I hate you so much right now…
Lievremont has typically kept clear of wild pronouncements in the media, making his choice to break cover in the build-up to their clash with England all the more puzzling. What followed however was straight out of the Lievremont playbook. Two of his most consistent performers, Morgan Parra - one of the bright young things from his early days in charge - and Julien Bonnaire, were out on their ear and Sebastien Chabal, to some a match-winner, to others a spent force, was recalled to the side. Such changes puzzled many, infuriated others but surprised few. Whatever you say about Lievremont, he backs himself and his decisions. His former team-mate, Richard Pool-Jones, offered an insight into the mind of the man in The Guardian: "Marc expects a lot of himself and those around him and likes loyalty. He is discreet, very humble and a real family man. He does not appreciate outspokenness in a team environment. If Marc looks unhappy in front of a microphone it is because he is. He does not seek public recognition."
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