Monday 14 October 2019

Cian Tracey: 'The French revolution'

Changes in attitude from the top down have seen France finally starting to play catch-up in terms of the kind of systems and training methods that Ireland have been using for several years

The French number 10 Romain Ntamack scores a try against Scotland last month. Photo: Getty
The French number 10 Romain Ntamack scores a try against Scotland last month. Photo: Getty
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The trials and tribulations of French rugby are such that the mere sniff of a potential new era is invariably met with a sense of doubt. C'est la vie.

However, since seeing off Ireland's bid to win the rights to host the 2023 World Cup, there has been a shift in mood from the top down.

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France may have emerged victorious from that particular off-field battle with Ireland, but the reality is Les Bleus are still playing catch-up in terms of how things are done in this country.

Bernard Laporte's grand plan centres around the hope that by the time their home World Cup comes around, France will have a team good enough to win it, yet there has been a realisation that a plethora of exciting, young players are coming through the system right now, that if managed correctly could compete for trophies before 2023.

For now that seems as if it is some way off, but scratch the surface behind the scenes and you begin to see how the operation is slowly shifting in the right direction.

That Jacques Brunel has named an unchanged team for the first time in his 14-game tenure is telling, and although there is some suggestion that Laporte is now the one calling the shots, you have to go back to 2003 to find the last time France selected the same starting XV for consecutive Six Nations games.

Viewing French rugby through the prism of the national team is only half of the story however. Dig deeper into the domestic game and the evidence would suggest that the latest revolution may well be on the cards sooner than many think.

Nutrition

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Paul O'Connell recently revealed on the Left Wing podcast that his club Stade Francais don't employ a full-time nutritionist, while there is also a shortage of laptops for analysis.

Considering schools teams throughout Ireland have nutritionists, it is staggering to think such a big French club don't.

"Before I arrived, I would have expected and thought there would be a nutritionist here," former Munster scrum-half Mike Prendergast, who is working as Stade's attack coach, admits.

"It was a bit of a surprise when we came in. We're trying to sort things out on and off the pitch and a huge part of that is your nutrition.

"We spoke about it and said we need to get someone. Like anything, you'll have some players who will be very professional in the way they look after themselves from a nutrition point of view and sleep. But you'll have others who aren't as serious and need someone looking over their shoulder.

"They are all things that become habits. Even bringing notebooks into meetings, you have to keep reminding players to do that whereas at home, it's part of it."

Pau sit just below Stade in the Top 14 table and despite their budget (€25 million) being lower than the Parisians who top the chart on €34 million, their set-up is quite different, as ex-Munster and Ireland U-20s back-row Paddy Butler explains: "We have a nutritionist. We are lucky that Simon Mannix is the head coach. He brought the Munster structure here. So it's pretty professional.

"We have tons of S&C coaches - everything is run the same way as what I would have been used to with Munster."

Bernard Jackman, who spent six years coaching Grenoble, paints a very different picture of his time in France.

"We went on a camp and there were cakes at every meal - breakfast, lunch and dinner. I felt it was too much and the doctor disagreed. His argument was that the players needed to enjoy their meal time.

"There was a robust discussion around it and eventually we got cake taken off breakfast.

"Culturally the French don't eat a big breakfast but they tend to see it as a little light snack.

"You can educate them on it but if they are completely against it, you have to accept that there are certain battles you need to fight and others you don't."

Fitness/Training

"In Ireland you drop a ball and it's scamper, get down on it. In France, the ball is left there, the coach throws another one in. While in an Irish team it would be: 'Get the ball you f******g prick and get it back into the team.'"

Ronan O'Gara (2014)

In recent years, France have moved away from their joie de vivre style as more of an emphasis was placed on having bigger, more powerful ball carriers.

Selecting fleet-footed youngsters such as Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos, however, shows that attitude is changing, as it is with the clubs.

"In the last year or two, we have put a lot more emphasis on running a lot more in training," Butler says.

"We needed to improve that and we have definitely seen huge benefits in terms of people's fitness levels.

"We have new training facilities and the club invested more into the S&C side of things, so the fitness has improved loads."

That is echoed by Prendergast, who along with O'Connell is attempting to change Stade's way of thinking.

"I talk to other coaches and players over here and their sessions can sometimes be really drawn-out.

"Over the last couple of years, even since Grenoble, the intensity of training has been getting quicker. If we are doing an attack day and we have a set-piece, you run to that set-piece. If we have a lineout, you run to it. So you are doing it under more fatigue but it's shorter.

"It's one thing that Paul has really reinforced here because they like hearing about the Ireland team and the Irish model, which is training at a high tempo. Maybe at the start, it was something that we are short on but we have improved."

Coming from the second tier, Jackman's challenge was to alter the perception that the powers that be had at Grenoble.

"PRO D2 is quite slow, very set-piece orientated, a lot of kicking," the ex-Ireland hooker maintains.

"The training was probably tailored towards that so we had a lot of very big men who had a lot of size and power but didn't have a huge aerobic capacity.

"We had to change that when we became a Top 14 club. We had to focus on the high-speed metres a lot more at training."

Club/country relationship

One area that France have a long way to go before catching up with Ireland is the joined-up thinking between clubs and the national team.

Take Ntamack and Ramos as an example; Ntamack is predominantly playing in the centre for Toulouse with Ramos at out-half, yet it is Ntamack who is currently wearing 10 in blue with Ramos at full-back. Sacre bleu!

"The problem historically has been the lack of trust between clubs and the union and a lack of commutation both ways," according to Jackman.

"It was shocking - in my five years at Grenoble, I never saw a national coach there. I never spoke to anyone.

"You would think that if you spent five years in the top league, you would at least have had a coach come watch training or come see you after a game or ring you up and ask about a certain player, but there was a huge divide."

Prendergast, who spent a season playing with Bourgoin in 2006, coached with Jackman at Grenoble, and was at Oyonnax before arriving at Stade last year, insists that has now also changed.

"Up to a couple of years ago, they were very short on that little communication. It just wasn't there.

"I know the FFR (union) have sat down with the clubs and tried to thrash things out. They have got a bit of leeway with it.

"Even going back to when I arrived here six years ago, the league games before and after the Six Nations or the November internationals, all the players played, now they don't.

"They are starting to get it. Rome wasn't built in a day. But unfortunately, France are still six or seven years behind Ireland and they are trying to catch up."

From a player's point of view, Butler admits that his team-mates at Pau now feel like they have a better chance of catching the eye of the national coaches.

"In my first three years here, I never saw a French coach in the club. They started coming in a bit this season and in pre-season.

"The first time I saw French coaches around the place was in the last 12 months so they are trying to make it better."

These newly-adopted methods may not provide overnight results on the pitch, but as French rugby increasingly threatens to get its house in order, the rest of the world will be watching with a little more trepidation.

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