Peter Bills: Time has come for frech tinkerman to deliver
Marc Lievremont thinks he can see light at the end of the tunnel -- and he swears he isn't peering into the tunnel underneath the English Channel. Lievremont has been assembling, sorting, dropping and selecting French rugby players like some croupier in the casino at Monte Carlo.
Ever since he replaced Bernard Laporte after the 2007 Rugby World Cup, the former Stade Francais back-row player has been choosing players like an inveterate gambler.
But as Ireland prepare for today's match against Lievremont's latest French team at Stade de France, the French coach believes he is now closer than ever to the squad he might want to take to the World Cup in New Zealand next year. But maybe 'might' remains the operative word.
He attempts to justify the high turnover of players -- like at out-half, where he has used six different players and changed or rotated the position 11 times in 22 games -- as a natural process. "When I arrived a lot of the very important big players had retired from the French team, so it was decided that you had to change everything," he says.
"You had to shuffle the cards again, and change a lot. We had to go to Australia to play for example, without any players that had been semi-finalists and finalists in the French Top 14 Championship that year.
"We do have a good base now, although short term, we have the difficulty of having to choose some players and maybe forego other ones," he continues. "So, we depend less on some players that could have caused a problem, ie if they had been injured. If there are any problems with them, at least now we know before."
Lievremont knows about problems, most noticeably with bustling, powerful centre Mathieu Bastareaud, who got the entire Wellington police force out on a wild goose chase for his alleged assailants after he'd been hurt on the night of the Test match there last June.
It was only afterwards Bastareaud admitted he'd made up the whole story to cover the fact that he'd got drunk, fallen over and injured himself.
Lievremont says: "I asked him to apologise, that was the one thing I asked him to do. I asked him also to be a good performer for his club, and he was very good, and I asked him to work with young players in schools, which he is doing.
"Of course, he is young, 21-years-old, a very young player, and he lied, he embarrassed his union, his club, everybody. But this player has been apologising for the past six months; he can't apologise forever." Besides, Bastareaud is just the kind of player Lievremont will need in New Zealand next year. But enough of Bastareaud. What of Lievremont?
Former Stade Francais coach Ewen McKenzie worked closely with the French national coach when he was in Paris last season. The Australian believes that Lievremont is on the right track.
"No one should bother too much about the high rotation of players in France," says McKenzie. "They're more used to that style of management than anyone else in the world. It might frighten people outside France, but when you're involved in French rugby you understand the nature of the competition. It is part of their rugby culture.
"Lievremont has brought a lot of younger players to the fore yet he has still got some wise old heads in the key positions in the team."
So, maybe there is some method in his apparent madness? Very much so, thinks McKenzie. "He's got a good relationship with the French club coaches and talks to them frequently," he says.
"Overall, I think he is managing the transition well. It is always about timing, but one thing about the French under Lievremont is that they won't go to the next World Cup over the hill as a side. In fact, he will probably get two World Cups out of a lot of these players."
The French coach himself remains pretty upbeat. "I have much confidence in this team," he says. "I have seen some very fit players, some very good performances from the clubs, and I think of the pieces, that it's a green light everywhere for France, and it's going to be France's year.
"But, of course, there is a step between being confident and being over-confident, so you have to be in between the two."
One thing Lievremont has established is an outstanding captain in Toulouse flanker Thierry Dusautoir. Not another Thierry trying to handle the ball today, groan Irish fans? Afraid so.