Friday 23 February 2018

For once, winning ugly will do for France

Saint-Andre has sacrificed flair and still failed to get results – so defeat is not an option

‘We must win,’ insists French captain Thierry Dusautoir. ‘The team of France has often been criticised because it won ugly, but she won. We really want to win, whatever the cost’
‘We must win,’ insists French captain Thierry Dusautoir. ‘The team of France has often been criticised because it won ugly, but she won. We really want to win, whatever the cost’
France head coach Philippe Saint-Andre
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ireland versus France. In recent times, a fixture of finger-licking anticipation. Hard to know really whether the latest incarnation might instead be best viewed from behind one's hands.

Six years ago, an Irish fingertip was the difference between one of these sides winning a Grand Slam. Sadly, on that occasion, it was not Ireland.

Four years ago, Ireland's impressively strong recovery from a characteristically smooth opening quarter from the French was again the difference between one of these sides winning a Grand Slam. Joyously so, for Ireland.

Yet, these two sides will pitch up in Dublin 4 this Saturday to avoid slipping into the ignominy of scrapping to avoid the wooden spoon on the championship's final day. How the mighty have fallen.

Riven by indecisive selections from ponderously indecisive coaches, shadowed by controversial treatment of a talismanic captain, undermined by diminishing public support and often outright ridicule, Ireland and France meet as if upon a precipice.


One of them is going to tip over the edge, hurtling inevitably towards their doom and, with it, ditching a host of senior players and a coach into the bargain.

France probably have a better chance of holding on to their coach, the rigid Philippe Saint-Andre, whose tactics are rugby's equivalent of forcing Barcelona to play like Wimbledon.

France's execrable tactics and selection – worryingly for Ireland moderated sufficiently well to produce their best, sustained hour of the campaign against England last time out – have been cleverly booted to touch by the coach.

Indeed, much of the sympathy in his own country – if not entirely among the Parisien horde who routinely boo and hiss their internationals from the field – resides with his view on how the French system, as opposed to the Saint-Andre system, is choking the international game.

The debate is timely given Jonathan Sexton's move to Racing Metro next term, meaning that on any given weekend 11 of the Top 14 clubs may be employing an overseas player in the No 10 position.

"It will be worse and worse because next year Sexton will arrive and three or four other overseas fly-halves will arrive," moaned Saint-Andre. "We have some positions – tighthead, fly-half, wing, full-back – that will maybe next year be 90pc overseas players. In France last season we had just two tightheads who were first choice for their clubs.

"Last year I would say that of the 28 first-choice wings in the Top 14, just eight were French. It is becoming difficult."

Hence prodigal son Freddie Michalak had been doing a less than passable imitation of an international out-half during this championship until dropped against England (although he was not helped by Saint-Andre's wanton neglect of the continent's pre-eminent scrum-half, Morgan Parra).

And then there's the ever live possibility of their international players getting beaten up while performing their primary duties with the privately owned clubs whose main motives are parochial and profit-driven, not patriotism.

There was evidence of this once again from the weekend just gone, with tousle-haired hooker Dimitri Szarzewski ruled out of this week's clash with Ireland due to injury.

That he sustained the injury on duty with Racing Metro, soon to be the home of Sexton, should cause alarm to Irish fans; albeit, the Irishman has sacrificed some salary to secure international release for entire Test windows to avoid such a fate.

Szarzewski is replaced by Perpignan's Guilhem Guirado. Others, like the in-form Benjamin Kayser – who will start against Ireland – Thomas Domingo and Parra emerged unscathed despite being required to do some heavy lifting for their club employers.

"We made this change as Dimitri, because of his injuries, will not be able to train before Thursday. His participation in the game would then be 50-50," said Saint-Andre. "That's why we called up Guilhem, so that he can train as of Monday with the group."

Like his Irish counterpart Declan Kidney, Saint-Andre has been criticised for his bench policy. He seemed to rigorously empty his bench on the hour against England and the team's effort crumbled exponentially; not, of course, that the coach felt that he was to blame.

"England were very pragmatic," he reported. "They didn't do amazing things but they were very, very accurate. We had an opportunity at 10-9 to go four points in front and I think England were not as confident as they were the game before.

"We did enough for 60 minutes and not enough for the last 20 minutes. We expected a little bit more of our bench. We expected they would bring more.

"Critics are there and they are normal. If there is a scapegoat, it's me and nobody else. We have good guys. I trust this group. We believe in them because they are capable of anything.

"We had our best game of the Six Nations against England. It was the highest level. But the high level is won and lost on the details. For us, we need to do everything to find victory."

This week, France stare down the barrel of abject dishonour. "I prefer not to think of a fourth successive loss," said Thierry Dusautoir, restored this year to his rightful place at captain, even if seemingly more subdued than at any time in his international career.

"This is something you do not want to consider and we will do everything so that does not happen. There is a pride to show that we are a team of good rugby players.

"In the end, we must win. The team of France has often been criticised because it won ugly, but she won. We realise that victory, whatever the way, is really important. We really want to win, whatever the cost."

However France, who have forfeited their innate beauty this term, have also forgotten how to win ugly. Despite their rampaging autumnal form, when players were less thieved of energy by Top 14 demands, they have simply forgotten to win.

For all Ireland's current problems, and the anguish of losing Sexton, Saint-Andre would much rather have the power of an Irish coach, albeit one for whom the exit door beckons.

"You learn more in defeat," muttered Saint-Andre, yesterday belatedly agreeing that he, not his players, should be the scapegoat, a position his counterpart cannot afford to assume.

Both he and Kidney, one presumes, have so much to learn from a winter of much discontent.

This week, when something has to give, is all about redemption or humiliation for these two sides. It may not be pretty to watch. Neither will the outcome.

Irish Independent

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