French clubs determined to right wrongs
September 29, 2009
France's clubs are hoping to right the wrongs of last season © Getty Images
Quite where the French clubs' va va voom went in last season's Heineken Cup nobody really knows, but there is a steely determination to put things right in the 2009-10 edition of the tournament.
Embarrassment was felt at every level of French rugby when just one of the country's seven representatives made it through to the quarter-finals of Europe's elite competition last time round.
Toulouse's limp exit - they lost 9-6 to Cardiff at the Millennium Stadium - was a fitting denouement to the nation's efforts that season and it meant there was no French semi-final representation for only the second time in the Heineken Cup's 14-year history.
The soul-searching began immediately. Some blamed the lack of intensity and the gradual slipping in standards in the Top 14; others argued it was impossible to compete with Welsh and Irish sides whose seasons are almost completely geared to success in Europe. It is with a certain amount of humility, therefore, that the French head into this season's tournament.
Typical French bluster was in short supply at Monday's Heineken Cup launch in Paris - indeed, a short, self-depreciating sketch, featuring a number of the country's highly regarded rugby bigwigs, on 'How to lose a Heineken Cup match' raised the roof at L'Ile restaurant at Issy-les-Moulineaux, on the outskirts of the capital.
But it is not a case of giving up before a ball has been kicked. Maybe players and coaches alike are simply determined to let the action on the pitch do the talking over the next eight months. The success of the national team in the southern hemisphere this summer, dovetailed with aggressive close-season recruitment by most Top 14 clubs, has seen the feel-good factor return just months after many were staring into the abyss at the state of French game.
The 2010 final being held in Paris, at the Stade de France on May 22, is another carrot for the country's clubs and there is an underlying belief the tide will be turned this year.
"Last season was a bit strange for the French teams," said Stade Francais centre-turned-winger Mirco Bergamasco. "But I think it was a one-off. Every French team involved has strengthened, they all have strong squads so it will be different this time."
Of the six French teams participating this season, Stade and Biarritz have been handed arguably the most benign draws. Bath, Edinburgh and Ulster await Stade, who are still to win the tournament after a number of near misses, while Biarritz - who are waking from their torpor after a couple of lean years - will take on Gloucester, Glasgow and Newport Gwent Dragons.
"We are fortunate not to have a national champion in our group but we are increasingly conscious of every team nowadays," said Biarritz head coach Laurent Rodriguez. Indeed, most invitees toed the "there are no easy games in Europe" party line but although that is largely true, aside from the Italians who continue to suffer heavy defeats most weeks in the competition, some were happy to deviate off it.
Toulouse coach Guy Noves was his usual outspoken self. Asked what the key was to French clubs getting back on course in the Heineken Cup, the disgruntled 55-year-old brought up refereeing issues that he claimed had affected his side's chances in recent years. The inability of most referees to speak French is an age-old problem that understandably frustrates France's clubs, and getting to grips with English-speaking officials is clearly something Noves sees as vital.
"We have to adapt ourselves to the referee," he said. "When we played Munster (in the 2008 final), they were playing with the referee (Nigel Owens) who had already officiated for them four times in that year's competition. We have to have more luck there."
Perpignan not only have a tough group, which includes Munster and Premiership side Northampton, but they also have to deal with the tag of coming into the competition as French champions, and being there to be shot at.
"It'll be difficult to go well in two competitions and that will be a new challenge for us," said captain Nicolas Mas.
With Brive in a desperately difficult pool (alongside holders Leinster, London Irish and Scarlets) and Toulouse also up against it in a group that will see them meet Cardiff, Harlequins and Sale, maybe Clermont-Auvergne will be left to fly the French flag.
The attractive Montferrand outfit are renowned under-achievers both in Europe, where they always fall at the first hurdle, and domestically, where they are perennial losers in the Top 14 final. Maybe that is why Jean-Marc Lhermet, one of their coaches, sees advancing from their group as a success.
"It hasn't happened too often for us in the Heineken Cup in the past so we hope to make it to the quarter-finals this time," he said. Privately, Lhermet and the rest of France will be hoping for much more from Clermont.
Max Guazzini, the ambitious president of Stade Francais, admitted "it would be a dream to win the final at the Stade de France" and if the French clubs learn their lessons from a humiliating year last season, there could yet be a winner on home soil come May.
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