Sunday 20 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Aristocrats to artichokes - France's decline a real worry'


France dejected during defeat to England
France dejected during defeat to England
Now that Rob Kearney had a good game, Zebo might retreat into the shadows
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Ian McGeechan in the post-match in Edinburgh made a very valid point when he said "Ireland were there for the taking" - he was absolutely right, but just not by Scotland.

How could Scotland be so bad on the day? They were sure that they were going to turn Ireland over. It is true that the Scots were missing quite a number of their squad but a goodly number were just squad players who were not even guaranteed their place in the 23.

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Hamish Watson, John Barclay and WP Nel were the only ones missing in their pack who were in the mix for places - but not certainties. Their backline was pretty much first choice. Ireland on the other hand were missing their first-choice centres, No 8 and second-row.

Verve Ireland will recover their nerve and their verve for Japan and though nobody really mentioned that the result and performance in Murrayfield had implications for next October. Ireland, missing a quartet of quality players and their halves still unsure of themselves, could have, if they had a smidgin of confidence, put a big number of the Scots. Scotland will have to improve immeasurably to trouble Ireland in Tokyo.

Maybe we should just have the World Cup final on August 24 when Ireland play England in Twickenham. I do hope that Test match won't be an occasion to test combinations and the depth of our squad. Think of it as a late summer re-affirmation of the Guinness Six Nations. Just check to see if England as champions are worthy of the honour. Check also if we can neutralise their power and kicking game.

Back to the 'Geech' and his assertion that a side are there for the taking. If any side is there for the taking, it is France. The Scots do have a chance to redeem themselves in Paris. The French are toothless, clawless and clueless - aristocrats to artichokes in such a short space of time.

France have England and Argentina in their group. On current form, they won't get out of that group. They are lucky Fiji are not there or they could finish fourth.

Last Sunday I got a host of texts from former international colleagues bemoaning why France weren't as s***e back when we were playing as they are now. France are a disgrace and it is all of their own making.

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You may remember that Fiji beat France 21-14 last November - a result that is symptomatic of their travails. There were eight starters in that Fiji side who all played their rugby in France. There are in excess of 150 Fijians playing rugby in France currently. If I was in the FFR, I would see that as a major problem.

They have gone about the problem in true Gallic fashion by capping some of those Fijians for France. The Top 14 clubs on the other hand are happy with the glut of South Sea Islanders. They are flamboyant and popular additions to any squad - great entertainers and prolific try scorers - if not great defenders.

The clubs rule in France and that is why their national team is a laughing stock at the moment.

In January - seven months before the final deadline for naming squads for the World Cup - Nemani Nadolo, one of Fiji's greatest players, announced his retirement from the international game aged 30. Who in their right mind would retire just before the big show? Nadolo, a giant Jonah Lomu-type winger, would have been a superstar of RWC19 but he suddenly wants to spend more time with his family and, eh, his club Montpellier.

I couldn't possibly speculate as to why a fit international would choose to retire just before the World Cup. Maybe the club game is more important. This sort of thing happens in France every four years.

Retreat I see that Simon Zebo has kept a high profile through the early rounds of the Six Nations. Now that Rob Kearney had a good game last Saturday, Zebo might retreat into the shadows but Simon is still playing his part.

Brice Dulin to my mind is the best full-back available to France. Dulin plays for Racing 92 and, to accommodate everyone including Zebo, Dulin either is played out of position or comes off the bench.

If you don't play or you don't play consistently you don't get picked. Yohan Huget got the full-back slot and you saw what happened.

The Top 14 is geared only to cater for the Top 14. The fact that France go to Rome on March 16 looking to avoid a wooden spoon won't change anything in Top 14 land. They will have a full Top 14 programme the following week. If France are weak - embarrassingly weak - then the Six Nations is missing something. The competition needs a strong and entertaining French side or it becomes predictable and flat.

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