Consistency is key
March 23, 2010
Marc Lièvremont will now be lookung ahead to the World Cup © Getty Images
Chapeau, Monsieur Lièvremont. This might not have been a classic Six Nations campaign but few would deny that France are worthy champions. That they staggered to the bell against England - like a punch-drunk prize fighter hanging off their opponent - was inconsequential.
Neither was the lack of the famous 'French Flair' - something Marc Lièvremont claimed he would reintroduce when he became France coach in late 2007. None of this matters. With 18 months to go before the World Cup, this was about generating a new winning culture and in that context, Lièvremont and France passed with flying colours.
That word 'consistency' was the key once more; a lack of which seems to have dogged French rugby since the year dot. Given the playing population and undisputed natural resources, the tally of no World Cup wins has been a stain on the conscience of every rugby-loving Frenchman for years and Grand Slams aside, it is the World Cup that remains the real prize for Lièvremont and his side. Yet the necessary consistency needed to win a World Cup has never been there.
Despite being cradled by the memories of great World Cup victories against the likes of New Zealand in '99 and '07, the French nation is equally haunted by the horrible no-shows (Australia in '99 and England '07) which followed those momentous wins. It is this, beyond all talk of playing with French flair, which remains Marc Lièvremont's biggest challenge, post Slam.
Of course, this being France, there are those who disagree. Some commentators in l'Hexagone have argued that coaching the inconsistencies out of the French players' psyche would be akin to removing their Gallic spirit. Their celebrated unpredictability would cease to exist, they say, replaced by something altogether more banal and 'Anglo-Saxon'. But therein lies the crux of Lièvremont's problem; how to allow the natural flair of his players to flourish while at the same time deliver performance after performance like all World Champions. Easier said than done.
This year's Six Nations was the first stage. France won it with an impressive pack, a flawless set-piece and an extremely aggressive defence, making Lièvremont's protestations in 2008 about rediscovering their natural flair nothing more than a footnote. Instead, this Grand Slam was won with a pragmatism that would have made Bernard Laporte blush. No harm in that.
When Lièvremont last year criticised Ireland for playing what he termed "the most negative rugby", he had yet to figure out that as with all professional sport, winning comes before style. Yet whether Lièvremont can deliver regular results playing with the traditional French swagger remains to be seen. But this will be Les Bleus' next stage of development. With 18 months and 13 matches to go before the World Cup, he has built an impressive squad of players and now has time on his side if he wishes to evolve France's playing style.
For all his tinkering, Lièvremont seems to found balance and real depth in his pack. Fabien Barcella and Romain Millo-Chluski were big losses before the Six Nations started but the Clermont pair of Thomas Domingo and Julien Pierre both had exceptional tournaments. So too did the Perpignan tight-head Nicolas Mas and with former captain Lionel Nallet back enjoying his rugby again, the French front five had an excellent championship.
It says something about the strength of the French back-row that Lièvremont felt he could leave the superb Louis Picamoles out of the side all spring. Picamoles tormented the Sprinkboks in the autumn and has been in excellent form for Toulouse but was deemed surplus to requirements in a trio that has arguably two of the world's best loose forwards on current form. Both Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquay had superb tournaments while Julien Bonnaire forced his way in past Fulgence Ouedraogo on the opposite flank and is back to his best.
At halfback, Lièvremont seems to have unearthed an excellent partnership in the shape of Francois Trinh-Duc and Morgan Parra. Trinh-Duc enjoyed a solid Six Nations campaign and the lack of a competitor for the No.10 shirt will most probably see him keep it for the foreseeable future. Likewise, Parra had an excellent tournament but his penchant for opening his mouth at the wrong time will not have gone unnoticed. Then again, when was the last time a petulant scrum half was the exception rather than the rule?
Elsewhere, Lièvremont will look forward to the return of the talented Maxime Mermoz to a backline that had plenty of bosh but little guile during the Six Nations. Mathieu Bastareaud announced himself to the world in the match against Ireland by easing past an injured Brian O'Driscoll to set up a score but doubts remain about his defence, something that was highlighted by England last weekend.
But the most striking thing about this Six Nations campaign has been the evolution of real competition in France's squad. Barcella, Mermoz, Picamoles, Ouedraogo, Cedric Heymans, Julien Dupuy, Yann David and Maxime Medard all excelled for Les Bleus at various times in the wins against the All Blacks and the Springboks last year yet none of them were missed. Instead, the emergence of new talent in the shape of Parra, Domingo, Pierre, Marc Andreu and Alexis Pallisson has ensured that places in Lièvremont's World Cup squad will be at a premium.
This week, the France coach is at home in Anglet in the Pays Basque with his family, no doubt reflecting on last weekend's achievement while beginning to plan ahead. He now knows he has the players to win a World Cup. But can he find the consistency?