'Honeymoon is over, no more excuses . . . we owe our country'
Philippe Saint-André knows the heat is on ahead of England clash as he tells Mick Cleary how he plans to revive the old Gallic free-spirit in French stars wrapped up in Top 14 bish-bosh
There is an invitation card in every bedroom of the Hotel Les Flamants Roses on the edges of the Mediterranean offering 'Espace Zen'. There have been plenty of occasions when Philippe Saint-André, the France head coach, has had need of such soothing holistic treatment, the latest only recently when news came that his captain, Thierry Dusautoir, had been ruled out of the entire Six Nations championship, making it "un weekend noir," as he put it.
Saint-André, though, is in forthright mood, acknowledging that the settling-in period is over for him after two underwhelming years in office. He knows that Le Crunch against England tomorrow evening offers a chance of redemption and that there can be no more mitigation for his regime now that he has the same pre-tournament player-release dates as the other countries – although he was still of a mind to bemoan the swamping of the domestic Top 14 French game by overseas players, so limiting his own options.
France have retreated to the coast near Perpignan for their first pre-championship camp. A squad of 30 players headed out into the brisk, sunlit morning for a training session at the Stade Saint Michel in Canet-en-Roussillon with Saint-André relishing the opportunity to prepare his players properly for what lies ahead, notably that box-office opener against England at Stade de France tomorrow.
"We know that the honeymoon is over for us as coaches, that the apprenticeship for the players has come to an end, and that we must all deliver," says Saint-André, who has won only nine out of 23 matches in charge, with last year's record of two victories in 11 games a stark illustration of the fall from grace, France ending with the wooden spoon for the first time in the Six Nations.
"There can be no more excuses. Of course, we are not yet complete, we have young guys to integrate and all that. But we accept that we have to improve. That is the reality of this job. I know that. The French team is the image of the country and we must do better. Our old friend England gives us that chance. It is not a slow start to the championship, eh? If we can win, it can make our season. It will set the tone and bring a huge, huge confidence to the group."
Saint-André insists that England are favourites, even though Stuart Lancaster's side is less experienced than his own. The former Gloucester and Sale coach, who spent 10 years playing and honing his craft in England, is well aware of the threat posed by an England side that has proven sturdy and occasionally inspired.
This fixture has special resonance for Saint-André, scorer in 1991 of one of the greatest tries ever seen at Twickenham, at the heart of a France team that enjoyed many a battle royale with England, punch-ups, rancour, dazzle, it was a soap opera with studs on. Is it time to rekindle such raw-edged sentiments?
"Oh, I wish, but not all that fighting maybe," Saint-André says. "And without the sacre Brian Moore winding us up. Yes, great times, but the modern game is not the same, although this fixture is still very special. The French public will come to the Stade de France to see us get into Les Rosbifs. That is the way it is and we must embrace that. I do miss Le Crunch of old."
Saint-André has noted the way that Lancaster has created an esprit de corps with England, emphasising the strength to be found in collective identity, that connection with the past and with the shirt.
In the 1980s and '90s, French teams gave off a particular parfum, intoxicating, suggestive and dangerous. These days it is hard to pinpoint just what the essence is. Can Saint-André, guardian of so many of his own memories, rectify that? "For sure, we are looking to get the guys in touch with their heritage," he says.
"This generation is not likes ours. We played club matches in front of 3,000 if we were lucky, then went to the Parc des Princes with 50,000. That made it an exceptional occasion, and you were lifted, felt extraordinary, knew that you were out there upholding the honour of your country.
It is the norm for these boys to play in front of big, big crowds. So, we come at it another way, re-introduce them to tradition, with former players handing out shirts, reminding them of who they represent, of that link down the generations. It is so important. There has to be a French way, too."
And French flair, reality or myth? "Ah, it was there, there was a sense of taking risk, or being a free spirit, and I would love to see it again," says Saint-André, whose side scored only 13 tries in 11 matches last year. "We have players in the group capable of it. But, you know, the pressure is on these guys every week in the Top 14. Winning is everything there."
The boom competition that is the Top 14, with TV rights being sold this month in a £300m deal over five years, a return more than 30pc higher than in the English game, has a down side to its commercial upside. Saint-André would not be drawn, but he knows that the prevailing style of play is power-based, all bish-bosh with risk an alien concept. And then there is the composition of the teams.
"The number of overseas players is an issue," Saint-André says. "I am not against foreign players, I signed them myself at Toulon – Steffon Armitage, Matt Giteau and others – and I understand that culture. The Top 14 is a cash machine and success is everything. You must win to get a return. There are now limits set on non-French players, but that is for the squad not in the starting team.
"Look, in last year's Heineken Cup final between Clermont and Toulon, there were only three French players available to me. Toulon had more English players than French. The other week I avoided the Heineken Cup to watch Stade Francais in the Amlin as it involved more French players. It is something to be addressed."
Three players, wing Yoann Huget, full-back, Brice Dulin and (injured) wing Sofiane Guitone, had to drop down to the second division a couple of seasons ago just to get game time, hooking up with Agen. In June Saint-André will announce a new departure, settling on 30 players to play no more than 30 matches.
He tells of several players who have had only one week of pre-season training before returning to play. Others in this squad have worked 22 days in a row. Saint-André spent two years battling to secure this Six Nations release agreement, the French federation striking a deal that costs £20m over four years.
"It was one of the toughest fights of my career, but we had to have it," says Saint-André, who coined an evocative phrase to describe France's handicap under the previous system. "It was like the other Six Nations countries were running a 100-metre race, while we had to do the 110-metre hurdles. Now we are level. This has been a big evolution, but we have to make the most of it."
Saint-André acknowledges the pressure. He knows he is under scrutiny.
"Of course all eyes are looking," Saint-André says.
"I am not the coach of the U-8s. The French public have been great, really behind us. But we have to get results, starting with England.
"Yes, it has been tough. But it is in my blood. You have to do it. You owe it to your country. England are awaiting for us. It is a nice prospect."
France, refreshed and re-energised, are in the zone. (© Daily Telegraph, London)