Saturday 21 April 2018

French farce shows no sign of ending as word-perfect Irish set to pounce

Jacques Brunel. Photo: PA
Jacques Brunel. Photo: PA
David Kelly

David Kelly

Saturday in France is all about 2019 in Japan. Not for Ireland, of course, who will blandly recite regular rejections of the notion that this tournament is anything other than lashings of Dairygold spread thickly between two slices of Brennan's finest.

The French are a race of people used to grander gourmet but they have not enjoyed such indulgent fare from their national rugby side for many years now and the Six Nations seems to be a less enjoyable competition because of their sad decline.

Right now, French rugby is consumed by two competing behemoths - their lucrative league and the controversial success in securing the hosting rights for the 2023 World Cup.

Miffed

French officials were miffed at the Aviva last year when they were apparently shepherded amongst the "normal folk" in the Presidential Suite - and presumably denied access to lashings of foie gras and Moët.

It will be interesting to see the reception the IRFU blazers will receive in the hob-nobbing department for this return fixture.

France remain trapped by their glorious past and seemingly unable to plot any sensible path towards their future.

As an example, Jacques Brunel will assume charge, in a manner of speaking, for this spring campaign following the sacking of Guy Noves, who was given the task of restoring the sepia-tinted past but, pointedly, when his best days were also behind him.

Brunel was also in the coaching box in 2007, the final season of six, when he assisted in the remarkable 43-31 success against Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland, who somehow conspired to trail 29-3 at half-time before a pyrrhic four-try assault in the second half.

The head coach was Bernard Laporte, French rugby's enfant terrible, who would seem to have enough on his plate as head of the 2023 World Cup operation while also occupying the attention of the gendarmerie after French rugby federation offices were raided last week.

However, it also appears that the choice of the unremarkable Brunel, another whose coaching time has come and gone, has allowed the ubiquitous Laporte to effectively become head coach by proxy.

For sure, as we were taught in school, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose; the more things change, the more they stay the same.

After that match, in the bowels of the stadium we were treated to the remarkable image of Laporte lambasting the French public as "bourgeois sh**s" for their perceived shabby treatment of the team in general, and fitful fly-half Frederic Michalak in particular.

Fast-forward a decade and, when France's win-less November ended with a draw against Japan, the crowd hollered and harrumphed, ripping up ticket stubs and demanding their money back.

Something is sick in French rugby - this week, literally - and recent history would seem to suggest that there is little optimism of an upsurge, despite the cosmetic effect of a new era.

Laporte, a long admirer of English rugby to the extent that his successful French sides aped England's forward-dominated style rather than traditional values, also tried to borrow their ideas about selection.

That backfired; in November, despite Noves unveiling an elite list of 45 players, he ignored 18 of them yet still managed to use 68 players in the win-less series.

Brunel struck most observers as an odd appointment, one the French tried to alleviate by attaching a number of leading club coaches to his ticket, until the quite obvious obstacle that many were tied to long-term contracts stymied that approach.

Hence, he has been surrounded by familiar names with unfamiliar experience; Julien Bonnaire and Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde were great players but have no coaching pedigree; Sebastian Bruno has at least some.

The atmosphere within the camp appears to be happier compared to the often autocratic style of Noves, which worked wonders in the glory days of Toulouse but had become out-moded in his twilight years.

"There is a new atmosphere with a lot of young people," says Wenceslas Lauret, speaking from the position of one who was exiled under Noves.

Unbridled

"Before, we felt the players were not unbridled when they were playing, there was always a fear of losing your place. His way of managing the team did not work."

There is much self-serving speak about a lack of regimentation now compared to under Noves.

"There is no need to ask permission to head to the shops to buy toothpaste," said one player, seemingly wallowing in the laissez-faire approach.

"We are adults and treated as such."

Brunel's Italian 2013 coup against Ireland was a rarity; in 50 games, he won a mere 11 and one could persuasively argue that he left the international side in a worse state than he found it. Quite the feat, that.

"Its complicated to make things simple," said Brunel last week as a nation steeped in disorder and chaos prepare to face an Ireland brimming with control and confidence.

Three to watch as France seek to topple Irish

Matthieu Jalibert

The latest great 'Bleu' hope at 10, Jalibert, just 19, did not play top-flight rugby until this season and has never featured in the Champions Cup.

Sekou Macalou

Joe Schmidt spent much of last Wednesday's Six Nations launch raving about how impressed he was by the Stade Francais lock's impact for France during their dire November series and the Kiwi expects him to become a star.

Geoffrey Palis

The Castres full-back is 26 and has struggled with injury yet and, with Brice Dulin injured, there will be a lot of pressure on his shoulders to deliver. He has the all-round game - kicking, catching and pace - that his side will seek to build from.

Irish Independent

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