Neil Francis: Not the men they once were but France are still a threat
A good while ago I went to Donnybrook to watch Ireland 'A' versus France 'A'. An unremarkable game made remarkable by my encounter with a former French player. Minding my own business spotting form, I got a wave and a nod from a guy standing 10 metres away. I had no idea who he was and just nodded and waved back. Moments later, he nodded again and I was still at a loss.
"Frawncisse," he shouted. So I gesticulated for him to come over where there was more room on the terrace.
"Tres bien et vous?"
Hadn't a rashers who he was and he realised that after a few minutes and he reminded me who he was. For the purposes of this article, I cannot mention his name because I am about to disparage him.
After a few pantomime moments where he told me who he was, I refused to believe him and it was only after he took out his wallet and showed me his driver's licence that I conceded to his identity. In French colours he was a Kenwood outrigger hauling logs, a buttress pinioned to Notre Dame, A savage beast. The big coat on the cold day couldn't hide the fact that he was half the man he used to be. How had he gone from Schwarzenegger to DeVito?
We joked about it for a few minutes.
The Gallic shrug said it all - take a wild stab in the dark - how did I think he lost five or six stone? Wasn't the slimfast plan that's for sure. He just stopped taking steroids. Simple!
Lining out to play the French in Paris was never less than interesting. As the teams came out of their dressing rooms there would be a minute in the tunnel. A cursory glance across the floor told you that this was going to be an uneven contest.
Flaring nostrils, bulging eyeballs, blood vessels bursting through their necks, murder on their mind. I'll have some of what they are on was the thought that went through my mind as we ran on to the paddock - it was a 'When Harry met Sally' moment.
Sometimes when our scrum held up we might last for 60 minutes but trying to keep tight in that area was energy-sapping and eventually the freight train would run us over.
The French always had enormous forwards and they were always the most physical pack in the championship. They enjoyed handing out pain and humiliation. They had very little respect for us.
After one rolling maul for a score one French forward, walking back over one of our forwards who was lying prone on the ground, said something to him in French.
The translation came at the after-match dinner and was moderately funny - "Does your husband play rugby too?" Very hard to handle them when they got on a roll. We know part of the reason why French packs were awesome agents of destruction. Technically too they were very good.#
They owned the ball at tight and their powerful maul always got runners going at you and they used to tear huge holes in our fringe and then their backs would cut you to ribbons.
Things have changed now. The French were far better when it was semi-professionals versus amateurs. Professional versus professional and it is at least a level playing field. They still beat us far more than we beat them but Ireland have been marvellously competitive over the last 10 years and the games are always tight and close affairs.
People wonder what ever happened to the wonderful verve and dashing adventure displayed by classic French backlines. It's pretty simple really: all the work was done up front and as the French forwards de-saturated their opponents, the French backs used to run onto hot, front-foot ball against a line that quite probably had a few tacklers taken into the last ruck to stop some rumbling French forwards.
All they had to do was run straight, be precise with their passing and those backs would mop up with acres of space. No more marauding packs to do that sort of damage, I'm afraid.
Last week in Paris, the Scots in a typical gutsy display made their tackles and scrapped hard with the French pack and stayed with them. The French, despite some oohs and aahs from the expectant crowd, never really threatened.
They offloaded but did so laterally. They threw a lot of behind-the-line passes and brought their blindside wingers into the line but couldn't ever create any space or overlap. France ran from such depth and yet Scotland filtered and drifted and caught them behind the line.
When France did get some decent ball, Scotland scrambled and were, I was about to say remarkably composed, but just common or garden average composed will do. No tries told you everything. France have been a shambles since Philippe Saint-Andre has taken over. He has picked 80 players to start in just 32 games. He is a bigger tinkerer than Marc Lievremont ever was. Half-backs? More combinations than the lock room in Fort Knox.
The English FA realised years ago that the Premiership's value for producing English-qualified players for their national team was negligible. The French Top 14 too is full of foreigners who can't play for France. This does not help Saint-Andre's cause. Although he might declare himself a patriot, Mourad Boudjellal has, quite properly, more interest in what happens to Toulon than France. The Top 14's popularity incline is in inverse proportion to the national team's decline.
It is extraordinary too that the French can't organise themselves to appoint somebody who knows what they are doing on the coaching side. Rumours that Saint-Andre's position would be reviewed if he has a bad Six Nations are only just rumours. He will be in situ for Ireland's World Cup fixture on Sunday, October 11 in the Millennium Stadium - all going well. France are dangerous and powerful opponents when they click. They played Scotland as if they were waiting for something to happen.
Their new out-half Camille Lopez can run a show and is intelligent and will give rational direction to France when they need it - just like he did for Clermont in Thomond against Munster. When his clubmate Morgan Parra is inside him, most likely in the second half when he comes off the bench to replace Rory Kockott, France will be a bigger obstacle to climb.
Defensively, France are very good when they are in the mood. Ireland will have to be patient and clever when their try opportunities present.
For France, their major weakness is on the left wing. Teddy Thomas is a handy player with the ball in hand - he has some change of pace and direction - but defensively he is the Keystone Kops in the middle of a bun fight. If Ireland are kicking - it's to Thomas - if they are running, it should be down his wing - he has no idea whether to come in or come out or stay put. Johnny Sexton (pictured left) knows this as well!
Today's selection represents a couple of gambles for Joe Schmidt which he does not like doing. If his returning players can last the pace, Ireland have a good chance. Ireland, as usual, will have to be very good to beat opponents who have nearly forgotten how to play.