Fortunes of Les Bleus proof there's lies, damn lies – and statistics
Those predicting the demise of French game at hands of foreign imports need to pay far more attention to the field of play, writes Peter Bills
Statistics. Sometimes you get the feeling rugby is being run by those who peddle them. Finish any game and you are enmeshed in a blizzard of stats. Who carried the ball most metres, who won most line-outs, breakdowns, mauls. Who gave away most penalties, made most tackles?
Ye gods! Don't these mathematicians understand anything about rugby? A guy who has carried the ball furthest and made the most metres might have run across the field all game. Someone who won most line-outs could have off-loaded the ball on to the half-back's boots every time.
So the hell with statisticians and their statistics. Yet they keep coming at us. France are no longer any good in the Six Nations because their clubs are stuffed full of overseas players, we are told. With all those foreigners flooding the French clubs, is it any wonder there is so little talent available to the national side, say the statisticians?
Well try this for a counter argument. Apropos nothing, I waded through the list of French-qualified players, those still holding down first-team places in the 'overseas dominated' clubs, and came up with this French 'team' for the opening match of the Six Nations, against England in Paris on February 1:
15 Buttin (Clermont); 14 Medard, 13 Fickou (both Toulouse), 12 Fofana (Clermont), 11 Huget ; 10 Doussain (both Toulouse), 9 Parra (Clermont); 1 Domingo, 2 Kayser (both Clermont), 3 Mas (Montpellier), 4 Pape (Stade Francais), 5 Maestri, 6 Chouly (Perpignan), 7 Nyanga, 8 Picamoles (both Toulouse).
A subs bench? Try the likes of Rougerie, Bastareaud, Trinh-Duc, Slimani, Samson and Diarra. To mention a few...
Now argue with me that such a squad is filled with no-hopers, inferior rugby players. With respect, you would be talking out of your derriere.
Undeniably, French clubs are obsessed with hiring foreign players. But the fact remains there are still enough top-quality French players available to make France a team to be feared.
It is blindingly obvious that in Wesley Fofana and Gael Fickou, the French possess two of the most talented, exciting young centres in Europe. They should represent the long-term future for the national team in midfield. And in players like Maxime Medard and Yoann Huget (Vincent Clerc is injured), they have speed to burn. Then there is Jean-Marcellin Buttin, a highly talented young full-back.
Jean-Marc Doussain is a calm, controlling influence at fly-half, even though Toulouse say he is a better scrum-half.
No forwards of power or quality? You try scrummaging against Thomas Domingo and Benjamin Kayser, the bedrock of the Clermont front-row. Nicolas Mas remains a rock at tighthead. Pascal Pape might be 33 but he's still competitive. Yoann Maestri, a fellow lock, frequently excels for Toulouse.
And what of the back-row, the unit that overwhelmed Saracens in the recent Heineken Cup match in Toulouse? Yannick Nyanga, Thierry Dusautoir (injured, and out of the tournament) and Louis Picamoles collectively offer speed, power, ball carrying ability, massive strength, defensive solidity and experience. What else do you want?
It is said that France usually win the Six Nations in a year after a Lions tour. And it's true, they won the Grand Slam in 2002, the Six Nations title in 2006 and the Grand Slam again in 2010.
So will they win in 2014 after the Lions tour to Australia last year? They might do but it will be nothing to do with the British and Irish players being tired after the Lions trip. Professional rugby players have never been better conditioned physically.
And here's another factor – such is the intensity of the game nowadays that most top players are frequently sidelined for a few weeks at a time due to injuries. Very few play week in, week out. So it's hard to see why the likes of Jamie Heaslip or Jonathan Sexton should be more tired than their French counterparts, who played three Tests in New Zealand last June.
It is easy to over-egg the belief that France have consistently failed in the Six Nations since the turn of the century. Fact is, they haven't. Since 2000, they have won Grand Slams in 2002, '04 and '10.
They also won the Six Nations title in 2006 and 2007. Shocking record, huh? Compare that to Ireland's one Grand Slam in 2009. Or England's solitary Grand Slam, in 2003.
However, there may well be cause to point an accusing finger at one group for the comparative failure of France to dominate the Six Nations in recent years. For me, much of France's trouble has lain at the door of their coaches.
Has the French team had a really top-notch, world-class coach since the Pierre Villepreux/Jean-Claude Skrela partnership ended at the start of the new millennium? Has any recent French coach – Bernard Laporte from the early 2000s to 2007, Marc Lievremont thereafter and now Philippe Saint-Andre – been of sufficient coaching stature at national level to bring the best out of the talented yet mercurial French players? I doubt it.
In the last 13 years, the French have never truly found a great team. They've had some talented individuals but few of them have really maximised their talents on the international stage.
There has to be a reason for that and I put much of it down to inferior, journeyman coaching. Maybe, to be exact, coaching that lacked sufficient stimulus, excitement and innovation.
The French are not like other people, certainly not their northern hemisphere brethren such as the Celts and Anglo Saxons. The Latin influence is obvious, meaning unpredictability, exasperation and indifference can predominate. Yet harness the spirit, inspire the players and you could have a mighty effective rugby group. But for whatever reason, few French coaches of living memory have even threatened to come close to doing so.
This has been extremely fortunate for their rivals in the Six Nations but profoundly frustrating for the French themselves. And even with three of their five games in this season's Championship to be played in Paris (against England, Italy and Ireland) would you risk the family silver on a French Grand Slam? Not with a nasty looking Friday night fixture against Wales in Cardiff to be negotiated on February 21.
Players of extreme talent can exasperate. But a coaching genius can understand such people. He can inspire, urge and cajole the player to greatness. Carwyn James, with the 1971 Lions, remains the best example of such a species.
For sure, France has had no one as their national coach since Villepreux of James' stature. And they have refused, thus far, to employ a foreigner, even a French-speaking coach like the South African Nick Mallett or Vern Cotter, current coach of Clermont, both of whom speak the language fluently and understand the French mentality.
Perhaps the most revealing comment came from Fabien Galthie, highly talented head coach of Montpellier. "I will never be French national coach," he said recently. "They (the FFR) don't want me, I have too strong a personality."
Maybe there lies the true reason for France's age-old failure to match ability with consistent achievement.