Sport Six Nations

Friday 28 April 2017

Basta back but Ireland won't fear Les Bleus

Mathieu Bastareaud is back in the France squad to face Ireland next Saturday. Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images
Mathieu Bastareaud is back in the France squad to face Ireland next Saturday. Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

French revolutions used to have a bit more bite to them than this one. For all the talk of a Guy Noves-inspired revival, the win over Scotland was Les Bleus' fifth in 12 matches under the legendary former Toulouse coach whose mission is to restore the team to its former glories.

He was starting from a low base. Their 2015 World Cup campaign and the reign of Philippe Saint-Andre ended in ignominy as New Zealand ran riot in Cardiff.

Wins over Samoa, Argentina, Italy, Scotland and, of course, Ireland hardly jump off the page in defence of Noves' achievements with this team.

Close-run-things against Australia, New Zealand and England are used as examples of progress, but since when did moral victories count for one of the game's supposed big beasts?

France are crippled by the greatest strength of French rugby.

The club game, fuelled by a huge television rights deal and driven by overseas imports, hogs the limelight and sets the agenda.

France head coach Guy Noves. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
France head coach Guy Noves. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

The national team are secondary, finishing fifth, fourth, fourth, sixth and fourth in the last five Six Nations since they dragged themselves to the World Cup final in 2011.

The form-line is clearly downward and with Bernard Laporte now charged with turning the fortunes around from his position at the top of the FFR, Noves' time in charge may be shorter than once imagined.

News over the weekend that Mathieu Bastareaud was being added to the 26-man France squad has only served to undermine the sense that progress has been made.

Anyone who has taken in Toulon's games this season could not help but notice that the sizeable midfielder has somehow grown even more.

One-on-one he can run over most players, but his capacity for getting around the pitch and contributing beyond his five or six impacts across the game is greatly diminished.

He has been retained in an extended squad and his presence may be simply a ruse to spook Johnny Sexton.

In Wesley Fofana's absence, Toulouse's Gael Fickou and Clermont's Remi Lamerat have been paired together in the centre to decent effect so far.

Both are fine individual players, like many of their team-mates, but it is as a team unit that France struggle to function.

Part of that is down to Noves' lack of time with his players, but there is also the knock-on effect that the Top 14 is having.

While the rest of the world is developing a New Zealand-style, integrated, athletic and forward-thinking game-plan, the domestic French game is still relying on the 'boot and bollock' school of winning collisions, scrum penalties and kicking goals.

In this season's Champions Cup, the French clubs - aside from Clermont - have been well below the standard their budgets require. Clermont stormed into the last eight, but Toulon and Toulouse limped through their groups and look unlikely to go any further.

Noves ruled the roost at Toulouse for longer than he'd care to remember. He guided them throughout his glory years, but in the latter days his tactics looked old-fashioned and they haven't really changed.

Joe Schmidt spoke fondly about his opposite number last week and the public utterances from the Ireland camp are, unsurprisingly, ultra-positive about the rise in French standards.

The stuttering nature of the win over Scotland has, for the first time, turned the focus of the French media on the head coach, yet Schmidt believes he will be given time.

"Guy has such an incredible coaching record," he said.

"I think he'll be maybe afforded a fair bit of patience because of his impeccable record and history with Toulouse, and there's a sense that he's bringing players in who are going to be really good in the future, and to be honest are really good now.

"He is a great guy, too. I've really enjoyed the conversations that I've had with him over the years and it would be great for him if he does that. I just don't personally want to help him with that next Saturday. We've got a job to do for ourselves."

Behind the scenes, there's no doubt that Schmidt will be working out ways of punishing the ill-disciplined elements of the French play.

He will no doubt examine the deficiencies in the pair of exciting Fijians on the wing. At every opportunity he has spoken in hushed tones about their attacking capabilities, but he will privately identify their weak spots and look to exploit them.

Last season, Ireland somehow managed to lose the ugliest of games in Paris as Noves' side survived until the hour-mark and took advantage of a struggling scrum and low confidence to score the all-important try.

As defeats on Schmidt's watch go, it was one of the most disappointing, but his side are in a far better place 12 months on.

Fatigue

That day, France came into the game having lost their two opening fixtures and badly needed a win. Victory over Scotland, however, means they are on the board.

New powers allowed Noves to keep his starting XV out of league action this weekend, meaning the fatigue that plagued them in recent years is not a factor, while it should also help in their organisation.

Fresh faces like scrum-half Baptiste Serin have added to the party, while the terrible Jean-Marc Doussain has been jettisoned after his role in the opening day defeat to England at Twickenham.

That performance will have grabbed Ireland's attention and they will respect France this week. They'll talk them up in public and analyse them to death behind the scenes.

There was a time, however, when Irish sides would fear the arrival of the blue jerseys. Those days are long gone.

IRELAND SQUAD - Forwards: R Best (Captain), T Furlong, C Healy, J Heaslip, I Henderson, D Leavy, J McGrath, S O'Brien, T O'Donnell, P O'Mahony, Q Roux, D Ryan, JRyan, N Scannell , CJ Stander, D Toner, J Tracy. Backs: T Bowe, A Conway, K Earls, C Gilroy, R Henshaw, P Jackson, R Kearney, I Keatley, K Marmion, L Marshall, L McGrath, C Murray, T O'Halloran, G Ringrose, J Sexton, A Trimble, S Zebo

FRANCE SQUAD: U Atonio (La Rochelle), C Baille (Toulouse), E Ben Arous (Racing 92), C Chat (Racing 92), D Chouly (Clermont), L Gourdon (La Rochelle), G Guirado (Toulon), P Jedrasiak (Clermont), J Le Devedec (Brive), B Le Roux (Racing 92), Y Maestri (Toulouse), C Ollivon (Toulon), L Picamoles (Northampton), R Slimani (Stade Français), S Vahaamahina (Clermont) ; M Bastareaud (Toulon), Y Camara (Stade français), G Fickou (Toulouse), Y Huget (Toulouse), R Lamerat (Clermont), C Lopez (Clermont), M Machenaud (Racing 92), N Nakaitaci (Clermont), B Serin (UBB), S Spedding (Clermont), V Vakatawa (FFR).

Irish Independent

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