Stumbling between poles of passion and control
Worryingly for Ireland, it looks like France's chopping and changing will cease just in time for their visit to Dublin, writes Brendan Fanning
Before a ball was kicked in this season's Six Nations, France coach Philippe Saint-André had an important point to make. While his rivals in the other five countries were feeding and watering their horses on a free weekend in the Premiership and Pro12, the French nags were being driven around the fields of the Top 14 in rugby's equivalent of the Grand National.
Not surprisingly, there were casualties. Moreover, the coach lost valuable preparation time when his players were off with their clubs. And when they came back, first they needed to recover. More time lost, and nobody needs prep time quite like the French.
Sometimes we look at the USA and wonder how quickly that country might become a force if circumstances were to change. Let's say if in California a sugar daddy was to dispense his sweetness, what might be achieved given the number of super athletes looking for success in that state alone.
Closer to home however we have one of the world's big hitters who, if they could pull their heads in, would wipe the rest of us off the map. England may be the largest constituency, with 131,400 in the senior men's playing category, but at only 7,000 less than that, France are in the ballpark. On a professional level they are on the same track as well, with 26 clubs spread across their top two tiers, four more than England. And yet, still without a World Cup, they are the game's great underachievers.
The France team struggles on a few fronts, not least being limited by the number of overseas players on their clubs' payroll. It is ironic that Saint-André is banging on about this now when he hired 17 non-French players in his time at Toulon. The plan has been to gradually reduce this reliance on foreign labour, but the target – diluted this season – of 55 per cent, or 16 players per squad, hardly represents a clean sweep.
It is not the clubs' concern that when Jonny Sexton arrives next season he will bring the number of overseas outhalves in the Top 14 to a staggering 10. The league is their sole focus – aside from those few who get excited also by Europe.
There is another fundamental flaw when it comes to France however, and that's how they go about their business in the first place. You may find it tedious to hear commentators wonder which French team – club or national – will 'turn up' on a given day, but the cliché wouldn't have lasted this long if it didn't have some basis.
This goes beyond their tradition of playing like men possessed when they're at home, and pussycats when they're on the road. It revolves around how they prepare for work.
We will always remember waiting for quotes following a Leinster game in France, and the stream of local warriors coming out of the changing room with a cigarette wedged to the bottom lip was remarkable. Even now it's hard to separate them from croissants first thing in the morning, and big meals last thing at night.
In John Daniell's excellent book Inside French Rugby – Confessions of a Kiwi Mercenary in which he charts the delights of nine years in the French pro game, he sheds some light on the reluctance to change basic dietary habits.
"Over the years we have all heard the speech about complex carbohydrates, and branch amino acids, and fruit and vegetables, and no alcohol and certainly no tobacco," he writes. "Everyone nods piously and asks a couple of token questions, but the reality is that the message falls on stony ground, in France anyway."
He retired in 2007 but even still there is a laissez-faire approach to preparing to play. One of the few clubs to get the mix right, between being a big French club for a big French town and accepting outside influences in their routine, is Clermont.
"It's certainly something that we've managed in this club, this marrying of the two, and it's one that's worked pretty much on every level," says Neil McIlroy, the team manager.
"It helped that Vern (Cotter, a Kiwi) had so much experience of the French game as a player so now he's bringing 10 years to the business of marrying French outlook with Anglo-Saxon ideals. If France were to get the same kind of structure and consistency into their organisation, and row back a bit on the passion, I think you'd have seen them play with more control in the second half against England."
The passion bit is intriguing. For many French players they have to be in a near psychotic state before they can feel ready to take the field. Yet there seems to be no cognisance of the poor preparation, which cuts short the passion.
Of course from a playing pool this deep France can fish some players with the right stuff. Clermont for example are currently providing eight of Six Nations squad, with four of them – Morgan Parra, Benjamin Kayser, Vincent Debaty and Wesley Fofana – in the 23 against England last weekend. Even Fofana could have gone another direction.
"He was a raw talent out of the Academy," says McIlroy. "He's a classic example of some boy who didn't know where he was going and could have gone either way. He didn't know the sacrifices that had to be made. He was very French, laid-back and emotional in outlook. For him that first year he got a professional contract was an achievement, rather than where he was going to go thereafter."
The inconsistencies in the production line are compounded by madcap selections in the delivery process. For the game against England, Saint-André made seven changes in personnel, and one positional. Marc Lievremont went one better in 2008 when he made nine changes to the starting team to face Italy – that had less to do with the need to drop the guillotine after losing to England, and more to do with using the Six Nations as a laboratory for the 2011 World Cup – so it's not exactly unheard of over there.
Unfortunately for Ireland, by the time they arrive next weekend, the last two changes (Maxime Medard and Sebastien Vahaamahina) might just bring France to where they should have been at the start, in Rome four weeks ago.
Clearly Saint-André has to carry his share of the load for selection mistakes. His appointment, along with Patrice Lagisquet and Yannick Bru, was a shift towards club coaches, after the 'union' coach, Marc Lievremont, had flopped so badly. Given that it's the all-powerful club game where most of the problems start, they know where to look. That they had their eyes closed when they were earning their corn there might just be part of the problem.