Saint-Andre: no excuses if we fail at Twickenham
The blast of the whistle cut the chill morning air at the French National Centre du Rugby at Marcoussis some 18 miles south of Paris. A pass had gone astray, the ball spilt and momentum lost. Even from a distance it was possible to sense Philippe Saint-Andre's annoyance.
The France head coach knows what lies ahead. Twickenham. And Saint-Andre is all too aware of what is at stake. Redemption or humiliation.
Which is it to be? "If we win this game, for sure we can save our Six Nations," Saint-Andre said, breaking off from a meeting with a government minister who was visiting the centre to discuss the plans for a new national rugby stadium to be built at nearby Evry.
"Perhaps the public can forgive us our sins if we can beat the English. But if we don't show pride and collectivity and skills, then we will be in trouble. At Twickenham, against the English, if you lose five centimetres in the collision in the opening minutes, by the end of the match it will be five metres.
"So you must show heart. And, for sure, we can do this. We saw that in November [when France beat Australia, Argentina and Samoa]. But, yes, it's true. Back then we were flying. Now we are a submarine."
Saint-Andre insists that there should be "no excuses, no alibis" on Saturday. France are coming to play rugby, "without the handbrake on", as he puts it - with relish as well as with passion, with intelligence as well as with force.
That is the vision of the game he sketches out with great clarity as well as feeling. He admits that the manner of the defeats by Italy and Wales was "unacceptable". He acknowledges the right of the Stade de France crowd to vent their frustration with whistles and boos.
Saint-Andre knows, too, that TV interviewers that morning had been asking his players what they thought of the arrival of David Beckham in French sport. It does not take much for a fickle public to drift away.
"We must show our supporters what we are made of," Saint-Andre said. "That is all that I ask. We want them to be proud of us. Instead they are depressed. So we must play for the jersey. We must have fight."
Saint-Andre was part of that generation of the early nineties when "fight" was given literal meaning in these encounters. Le Crunch had resonance because it was invariably a brutal affair with punch-ups and red cards. Those days are gone.
"It was gladiators back then, now it is more muscular chess," Saint-Andre said, recalling several epic contests, in one of which in 1991 he scored one of the greatest tries seen at Twickenham yet still ending up on the losing side. "Now you have four referees, 600 video angles, so, no, that sort of stuff, with all the bluff and intimidation beforehand, is in the museum. But the game is much faster now, really dynamic, full of real power, and that's what you have to prepare for."
Ah, preparation. That is a delicate subject in these parts. It has been a long-running sore that the French players have less time together than the other Six Nations countries, that the demands of the Top14 domestic league mean that several players have already clocked up more than 20 games this season. "That's almost as many as the All Black players get through in an entire season," Saint-Andre said.
He also has grave concerns about the number of foreign players operating in the Top 14. He worries that French rugby is losing its national identity.
"Yes, it is a big, big problem and the French supporters have to take notice of this," he said.
He feels that the state of affairs is akin to English football with the influx of players from overseas. "I was saying this in November when we were winning so it is not, how you say, sour grapes. We have to be aware of our identity.
"We used to have a Basque prop, a guy from Toulon on the other side, a Clermont hooker, perhaps. But now all the tighthead props are either from Tonga, Romania or Georgia. We have to be careful. What about fly-halves? What about wings, eh? Twenty of the 28 on show every week in Top 14 are non-French. So, when Vincent Clerc gets injured just before Le Tournoi, what can I do?"
To much condemnation he moved the impressive Clermont centre, Wesley Fofana, to the wing. "I have big shoulders and I am happy to take the blame, but something must be done," he said. A new deal for player release and other issues is due to be thrashed out in the summer.
"It's good to have players like Jonny Wilkinson come here, real stars, so we learn about professionalism," Saint-Andre continued. "But the balance is completely wrong. Our top players play too much and our young boys do not play enough because their way through is blocked. It is a double problem. England has recognised what was happening and has put a good system in place. Everyone in our public has to recognise that the image of French rugby is the French team."
Is there a crisis in French rugby?
"I can't say that but there is a problem," said Saint-Andre, whose most pressing concern is to select a team to take on England and to boost morale. "It's important not to panic but it's only right that there have been changes [five in the match-day squad]. We have to react better on the field."
Mission impossible then at Twickenham?
"No, it is never this for we play with a rugby ball and that can bounce all sorts of ways," Saint-Andre said. "England play very well. They are disciplined and organised. This will be our toughest game of all. We have to go there in a desperate frame of mind, to play for each other and with great ferocity. We will find out who has character, who can battle and who is weak. If we don't perform, it will be a long, long afternoon."
Saint-Andre has already endured two of those in this championship, experiences which he says were "not pleasant". He has little appetite for a reprise. But the reality is stark. England are in their pomp. France are bowed if not yet broken. One shot at redemption. The message from Marcoussis yesterday was clear. Saint-Andre is taking aim.
By Mick Cleary, Telegraph.co.uk