Friday 18 October 2019

Fragile French are hoping to build for the future

The real problem, as Bernard Laporte, the head of the French Federation, said on TV last weekend, is:
The real problem, as Bernard Laporte, the head of the French Federation, said on TV last weekend, is: "We have a French team which no longer makes us dream." Photo: Getty Images

Andy Bull

On Thursday, the French rugby club Carcassonne announced they were entering into a commercial partnership with the pornographic website Jacquie et Michel, on the grounds that they "share values of power, endurance, and vigour".

Carcassonne's general manager, Christine Menardeau-Planchenault, explained that "as a family club" they had put limits on what Jacquie et Michel could get up to. "There won't be any naked young women at half-time or any naked rugby," she explained. Despite that, Menardeau-Planchenault added that while it is normally "hard to get people to the stadium", tickets for their upcoming match against Biarritz were now "flying out of the box office".

If there has been a sudden swelling of enthusiasm for rugby in that little corner of the south, the mood everywhere else in the country is growing pretty listless. The Stade de France was only three-quarters full for the opening Six Nations match against Wales. It was a Friday night kick-off, which did not help, but the real problem, as Bernard Laporte, the head of the French Federation, said on TV last weekend, is: "We have a French team which no longer makes us dream."

Laporte thinks it has been that way for the past 10 years. Right now, France are ranked 10th in the world, and are closer in points to Spain, who are 21st, than to New Zealand, who are first.

France's record was bad enough under their last coach, Guy Novès, who won seven of his 21 matches. It is even worse under his replacement, Jacques Brunel, who took over at the start of last year. Under him France have won only three games out of 12 - against Italy, England and Argentina.

Laporte has been forced into defending his old friend Brunel, even though, as he admits himself, there is no good defence to offer. "We changed the coach just over a year ago because we felt things weren't going very well, and we can't say that they're going much better today," Laporte said. "But it would be difficult, and certainly dangerous, to make new changes now."

The odd thing is, France were leading at half-time in seven of those same games and then went on to lose five of them. That pattern includes three of their last four games, against South Africa, Fiji and Wales.

When Wales came back from 16 points down at half-time, Warren Gatland said his team had "forgotten how to lose". Truth is, it is probably more accurate to say that Brunel's team have forgotten how to win. Across those 12 Tests under Brunel, France won the first half by an average score of 13-11, and then lost the second by 15-8. They have taken some beatings in the second 40: 18-6 by Scotland, 44-0 by New Zealand, 20-10 by South Africa.

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Chris Ashton, who spent two years playing for Toulon, suggested last week that the French players were not used to the intensity of international rugby, because they play such "a slow, stop-start game" in the Top 14. "Maybe that step-up shocks them," he said. "I'd definitely say the Premiership is a lot more intense. The whole game is quicker."

But in France, they are more worried about the mental strength of the players than their physical fitness. And with good reason. "In the course of the match there is always this fear of winning that resurfaces, these old demons who come back," said their young scrum-half Baptiste Serin last week. "It can only be in the head," says Laporte.

The No 8 Louis Picamoles says all the criticism is starting to weigh on Les Bleus. "We want to be aware of how lucky we are to be here, to enjoy these moments, despite the bad luck we've had. There were some very positive things about last Friday, but we've all been talking a lot about the negatives. I don't want to sound like we're a bunch of teddy bears, but the danger is if we keep seeing, reading, hearing negative things, we'll become negative too. It doesn't help us."

Brunel has started to fold in some of the young French players who won the under 20s world championship last year, such as Romain Ntamack and Demba Bamba. The problem is that by playing in a losing team they are learning all the wrong things.

Laporte, though, says there is hope in this new generation, who should be ready by the time France host the World Cup in 2023. But even he seems to have given up on the tournament before it, in Japan at the end of this year.

"I wouldn't bet my house that we will be world champions, mathematically there is very little chance," Laporte said. However, in his next breath, he added: "But our team has potential, and hopefully anything is possible."

He, at least, hasn't given up dreaming just yet.

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