Monday 20 November 2017

Childish tinkering has potential to derail this fragile French outfit

The damage that Marc Lievremont's baffling selection policies could have on his side should not be underestimated, writes Neil Francis

I constantly marvel at my five-year-old's sense of adventure and martial perspective. He has a battalion of imperial stormtroopers backed up by a squadron of imperial starships.

A platoon of Transformers and a division out of the 101st US airborne, yet he chooses to storm Castle Grayskull with a battery of Smurfs, led by SpongeBob and Squidward. Surely there are easier ways of evicting Skeletor. He does it his way. There is something incontrovertible about a child's will -- an unquestioned prerogative.

Marc Lievremont has been in charge of France since October 2007. Since he came to the top job his consistency of selection and strategic blueprint could easily have been drawn up by a five-year-old -- there is no rhyme or reason.

In three years he has capped 88 players for France. When will the puerility and childishness end? If not soon, then he is in danger of being adopted by Madonna.

In three years he has picked six starting XVs; not only does it diminish and devalue the status of the international jersey, it gives a sense of dysfunctionality to the core of quality players who are picked on a regular basis.

The template for success is breathtakingly simple -- you pick your best players, you play them together as often as you can, you improve them, you find where their boundaries are and then extend them. You offer the experienced and trusted players autonomy and freedom of expression, you upskill them. You infuse fresh ideas -- but never move too far away from your basic principles. You only introduce fresh blood if obsolescence or consistent bad form dictates. Most importantly, emphasise the group dynamic and, dare I say it, engender the bond.

You can get away with this for three or four years before they get tired of you or you get tired of them, by which time you will have won something big. Yes, keep the team on its toes; edginess is good, a sense of security is bad, but arbitrary droppings -- sheesh. A whim at selection time does more damage to generic growth, positive direction and development than Caligula could do in a week in his prime. Compare and contrast the agonising that Declan Kidney does over one person getting the heave-ho.

Where has all this tinkering got Lievremont? What about the 60 players he picked over the last three years and subsequently discarded? What value was there in experimenting? These players got capped, they were never good enough, and they won't be playing in the World Cup or the Six Nations. What a complete waste of time.

If you look at the team that Bernard Laporte used to beat New Zealand in that memorable World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff in 2007, there are 12 players in today's squad who took part in that match. Seven have retired since then but there are still 11 available for selection -- incredible! After all that faffing about, picking and dropping, dropping and picking, this team, the core of it, is still Laporte's side.

Lievremont's two real selections are his half-backs. What France needed was a set of halves that could still control a game when the pressure came on. Halves who could operate when their pack was under pressure. He plumped for Francois Trinh-Duc -- the most over-rated player since Judas Iscariot won the AD31 best disciple competition. Temperamentally fragile, he has improved, but like most souls who are thrown in above their level, he has adapted. He has become a better player due to the exposure, but there is a superficiality about his improvement. Forget about the pass between the legs last Saturday, when the heat comes on, he struggles.

With all that talent France have, surely there was somebody better than Trinh-Duc. Morgan Parra, too, won the race for favour against players who I think were superior -- Dupuy, Durand and Yachvili -- even Ronan O'Gara's mate Mignoni.

Lievremont's team, his strongest team, the one he has avoided picking for three years, has more or less presented itself for selection here in Dublin today -- by accident. There are still one or two travesties. Vincent Clerc, our tormentor-in-chief for the last five years -- a man with 10.4 100m pace and the best winger in France -- is on the bench for Yoann Huget. Clerc playing badly is a better player than Yoann Huget. Maybe the French Federation insist that some of the weaker Top 14 teams get a man in -- it's more than a shoulder shrugger, it unsettles a team when the core or the entirety of a team know that there is an inferior player on the park, picked on a whim, while absolute quality sits on the bench.

I point all of this out to you because France psychologically still have not recovered from some severe duffings last summer. France, a major rugby power, don't get beaten by such scores by accident -- they lost to South Africa (42-17) and Argentina (41-13) and in the autumn to Australia (59-16). It makes them vulnerable today. There is still a synapse of discord and mistrust in the French camp.

During the autumn series Lievremont most summarily dissed and ditched his best player Imanol Harinordoquy. The explanation and reasoning was absolute tosh. Harinordoquy -- who had just been given the captaincy -- was deemed to have an unacceptable attitude and therefore the Basque was being taught a lesson.

The squad is announced in January and Harinordoquy is back in -- not a word said. Biarritz's No 8 scores a class try in the 54th minute against Scotland. One minute later Lievremont takes him off and puts the imposter Sebastien Chabal on the pitch. The match was still a contest at that stage. You keep your best players on the park for 80 minutes, otherwise you lose your shape. Clement Poitrenaud was brought into the action as a result of an injury to Maxime Mermoz. He becomes their most effective attacking tool. Providence, not Lievremont musings, decreed he ended up on the pitch at full-back instead of Damien Traille who was picked at fullback for his goal keeping and his ability to make 70-metre punts out of defence but whose counter-attacking vision was zero.

This has a knock-on effect for Ireland. I was quite happy to see Poitrenaud and Yannick Jauzion on the bench and out of the squad entirely. Jauzion, a world-class player, was discarded for no real reason other than he wasn't playing to his highest standards. The fact that he was playing far better than Aurelien Rougerie or Traille, who start in midfield, just doesn't come into it. Another senior and integral part of the team bemused by being dropped; back in down to luck, he will have a part to play. He will join the action and dumb luck means he could make a difference.

The point that we're slow-cooking is that this French team is vulnerable. Scotland are a poor side and they picked off three tries and broke 25 tackles in Paris and yet all we think of is that France are back to their swashbuckling best again. Four tries off turnover ball cheaply conceded by a Scottish side that, Lord help them, are toothless but just don't cough up the ball that often.

God help us all if France had put in a coach who knew what he was doing and selected his strongest side. France have symmetry and balance and a little bit of self-belief coming from Paris. I still sense fragility though.

Whether Ireland can avail depends on fundamental applications. No free ball for the French to counter with. No cheap scores or early concessions. No weakness on the gain-line. No faffing around in our own half in the first half. Field position is key.

Ireland also must sense that if they can go three or four phases, the French line might become as disjointed as it was against Scotland. A penalty count reversal and a smarter strategic approach will make this a very tight match. Ireland have a real chance. Opportunity requires belief. They are, I believe, compatible bedfellows.

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