Lievremont still has a long way to go before he can satisfy French fans
Published 10/02/2011 | 05:00
Monsieur Marc Lievremont should not be fooled.
Not even that coruscating defeat of the Scots in Paris last Saturday means that the French are now in love with their national rugby coach. After all, did not 'Les Citoyens' take flowers along to the scaffold in revolutionary times, better to enjoy the spectacle?
The sense of anger, frustration and pique among French rugby fans goes a whole lot deeper than just a solitary victory over a Scottish side that wins in Paris about as often as Citizen Robespierre showed mercy.
Little more than nine weeks ago, all of France wanted Marc Lievremont with a rope around his neck. His team, comprising certain players regarded in French rugby circles as donkeys or lamp-posts, collapsed to a 16-59 defeat at the hands of Australia.
Had there been a scaffold handy, Lievremont (right) wouldn't have seen the morn. So, you have to say that, even by traditional French standards of alarming peaks and troughs, last weekend's at times sumptuous dismantling of Scotland represented something of importance.
The question is, what? Was it merely another false dawn, like those that seem to have hallmarked Lievremont's tenure? After all, the manner in which his team thrashed the world champion South Africans back in November 2009 suggested that a new dawn had broken.
That suspicion was given added credence when France won last year's Slam. Yet even in triumph, there was the discernible sound of creaking doors within the camp.
England played them off the park in the Slam decider in Paris last March and should have won. Only England's unfamiliarity with the new style of rugby under the new law interpretations enabled the French to squeeze home.
But a sense that all was not right amid that triumph was underlined last June. France were flogged 42-17 in Cape Town by South Africa and then wiped away 41-13 by Argentina in Buenos Aires one week later.
When Australia put them to the sword in Paris at the end of last November, Lievremont seemed unlikely to survive such was the storm of protest that broke.
So, one win against Scotland, however propitious in style, does not yet mean Lievremont is off the hook. Of course, he will take France to the World Cup; that much is assured because it is far too late for change, just seven months from the kick-off. But that isn't the point.
What the French fans want is to see a serious challenge from their team, for a change, at a World Cup. Not just some brilliant 80-minute performance that no team can live with, followed by a next match of gross mediocrity and defeat. Such has been the way of every French World Cup campaign to date.
But not even a credible World Cup challenge is enough for a demanding audience. French rugby men demand their team embraces the possibilities of this new style of rugby, for it is so reminiscent of the great days of their past.
French rugby heroes of yesteryear performed in the silken manner shown by Lievremont's team last Saturday. But was this just a one off, an aberration if you like from a squad of players who seemed to have become as pre-programmed as traffic lights?
Be certain, the French are wary, suspicious even of Lievremont and his team.
Hence the headline in the widely read 'Midi Olympique' newspaper after the weekend: "The art of recuperation, not of construction." The newspaper also talked about the paradox of the defence, reference to Scotland being so out-played at times yet still managing to score three tries.
These are worthy pointers for Ireland, who play France in Dublin on Sunday. Another sweeping French display is far from assured. The thing is, no one in France quite knows what to expect.
However, neutral judges raise some valuable issues on the topic. Daan Human, Stade Toulouse's South African loose-head prop forward, makes the point that the French are always capable of a 'spectacular' such as last week.
Why? "Because they always practise this style of rugby.
It was always their strong point to off-load the ball before the tackle; this is their game," Human said.
"It is not a game you can just switch on and off. You must be used to its ways, be accustomed to its requirements. In general, the French are, for it is their birthright.
"Of course, you must always adapt to the circumstances in which you play.
You should make decisions based on what you see in front of you. This was always the way the French played rugby."
But not very much in recent years, under the stern, unforgiving gaze of control freaks otherwise known as coaches. Some suggest last Saturday was Lievremont's last, desperate throw of the dice, to try to find a way forward for his team. If so, it worked spectacularly.
But judge neither him nor his team on one game.
If Ireland play in the Frenchmen's faces for 80 minutes, shut them down and apply a rigid tourniquet, where then for Lievremont's team? Can they really adapt, switch styles mid-game, or will familiar frustrations emerge?
No one else should yet acclaim Lievremont's team of last weekend as the real deal for a very good reason.
Not even the French are doing that quite yet.