Attitude may yet be downfall of Les Bleus
Wales proved one thing: if you turn the screw on Marc Lievremont's team they are beatable, says Paul Ackford
Published 28/02/2010 | 05:00
So, only England stand between France and their first Grand Slam since 2004. It is true that France still have to overcome Italy in Paris next match up, but it is inconceivable that they will let that one slip. But England, also at the Stade de France? That could be a different matter entirely.
Friday night's tumultuous encounter with Wales in Cardiff served up two apparently mutually exclusive truths. One, that France are far and away the most complete side in the championship. And two, as Wales aptly demonstrated when they rattled them for the first 30 minutes of the second half, that they are also eminently beatable.
First, the good stuff. France pretty much have their basics sorted. Their scrummage is rock solid, their lineout tidy, their defence profoundly aggressive, their kick-and-chase game well structured. And they complete on their tackles. That makes them a particularly hard side to overcome because, if their heads are right (and this is the second part), France are simply better at delivering on all areas of a game plan than any other side in the Six Nations.
They derive their advantage mainly from the quality of their players. Clement Poitrenaud may not have the stardust which Lee Byrne occasionally scatters but he makes appreciably fewer mistakes than the Welsh full-back.
The same is true of Yannick Jauzion in midfield, who understands the game and who can navigate smoothly through the rough patches.
Technical excellence is France's default position. It is on show at scrum time where Nicolas Mas is having a fabulous tournament, and it is also on view at the lineout, if Julien Bonnaire plays, where he and Imanol Harinordoquy are true craftsmen. It is that competence across the board, allied to a defensive system which puts opponents under pressure and forces mistakes, that is at the heart of their success.
Where France are not so clever, and this is happening less frequently at home, and as the squad get more game time together and become more experienced, is their ability to control their emotional state.
Their temperament can be dodgy. Some of their youngsters -- Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc -- are easily rattled. Parra, who was sent to the sin bin in the second half against Wales, is a telling example. His facial expressions during matches, the way he struts and pouts and poses, are those of an artist first, pragmatist second. The prima donna element in him is what makes him a very fine scrum-half, possibly an embryonic great one, but it is also indicative of a vulnerability which can wound France.
Freddie Michalak is another who fits into that category, as is Sebastien Chabal and, possibly, Mathieu Bastareaud.
France are still flaky. When Wales came at them hard in the second half, France didn't quite know how to respond. Yet it would be a mistake for Wales to take too much from Friday. For the third match in a row they allowed an opponent to build a significant lead before staging a fightback. They will not develop into a properly competitive rugby team until they work out how to gain parity in the collisions, which tend to be a feature of the first hour of any match, and which usually dictate the result.
Wales are brilliant in the last quarter. There is no team better, but only because fatigue and the mass introduction of replacements takes shape from the game and allows Wales's talented runners to prosper. It would be marvellous if Wales could create those conditions from the start, but they can't. Test rugby does not work like that. Fitness levels and the sophistication of defensive patterns rarely allow for that degree of liberation until the hard graft is over.
And maybe it is time for those who care about their national team to stop referring to the Welsh way as a justification for the manner in which they go about their work. The Welsh way is viewed by some as a distillation of how international rugby should be played since it implies freedom and adventure. The flip side is that Wales chose that route because they are no bloody good at operating any other way.
Wales made 23 errors against France and there were several occasions in the second half when decent scoring opportunities were squandered because of poor decisions. That's the Welsh way at the moment. Despite their appeal, they leak tries, are a side without a stable scrummage and an imposing line-out, and they commit too many bodies to the breakdown to secure or defend possession. To suggest otherwise is to camouflage the problems which are holding them back.
That is why England have a chance in Paris in the final game of a compelling Six Nations. England will fear France. They would be mad not to. But they know that they have the capability to challenge France in their areas of strength. England will need to go up a notch or three above anything they have offered to date, but if their scrum improves, if their lineout holds firm, and if they can rock France back in the collisions, then anything is possible.
England coach Martin Johnson said something interesting recently. He reckoned that the big Tests between the top teams in the world, those who are evenly matched, are chaotic, unstructured occasions which turn on little things: the bounce of the ball, a quirk of refereeing, a moment of brilliance, luck. Johnson believes that sometimes, despite all the preparation and the analysis, there is simply no pattern to what unfolds.
England are capable of getting to that place. Then we will see how French temperament holds up.