Wednesday 21 February 2018

Self-expression has a place under Les Bleus boss, but basics are key

French coach Guy Noves has already used 52 different players Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
French coach Guy Noves has already used 52 different players Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Mick Cleary

Guy Noves is quick to correct the throwaway line.

"No, monsieur, you are wrong," he says. "England against France is not Le Crunch. That is a term of the media. I have never seen it that way. You exaggerate it, build it up and I understand the need for you to do that. But, for me, no."

And the reason for that is simple. Every game is a crunch fixture for Noves. Always has been and, on the eve of the 63rd birthday of the former Toulouse and France wing, it always will be.

It is a great pity that international rugby coaches do not share the same pitch-side location as football managers do. For, if Noves were on the touchline at Twickenham as he had been for years with Toulouse, it would make the likes of Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp look like stone statues by comparison.


Noves, squatting, gesticulating, prowling, is a study in vicarious involvement. His body language alone must have helped win several matches for Toulouse down the years, an intimidating presence despite his lack of inches.

France has always loved its Petit Generals. And Noves, the son of a bus driver and grandson of a Spanish Republican refugee, fits the bill: energetic, spiky, engaged, a bundle of angst, intelligence and forthrightness.

"I'll take no lessons from the English press," was his sign-off to a radio interview recently on impending events.

There were some who believed that the summons to take over the national team in the wake of the World Cup, succeeding Philippe Saint-Andre, had come too late for Noves.

There was no more successful club coach in the world than Noves, who led his hometown team to nine French championship titles and four Heineken Cups.

The one-time PE teacher, a wiry figure on the wing for club and country between 1975-87, who was part of the Toulouse 'boot room' culture, inherited the values of expressive rugby from mentors who went before him such as Pierre Villepreux.

By the time the call came, Toulouse's fortunes had dipped. But Noves has still made his mark, bringing through players such as La Rochelle flanker Kevin Gourdon and Bordeaux scrum-half Baptiste Serin, and, crucially, reconnecting with the French public.

The jeers have turned to cheers, astonishingly so given that Noves' first year in office returned a ledger of only four wins from 10 games.

But there is hope in the air, a bit of lightness in the soul as Noves' France appear to have returned to their roots where self-expression underpins their approach. They try, they dare, they run, they offload.

"We want to continue advancing and not leave our supporters with any regrets," says Noves.

Whatever you do, though, do not trot out the catch-all phrase of 'French flair,' as Eddie Jones did pointedly three times on Thursday, to describe this seeming transformation.

No matter that you are trying to pay them a compliment, the French have always bridled at the term as if they are just carefree kids chucking a ball about, as opposed to serious athletes who have rehearsed such apparent ad-libbed sequences time and again.

"No, maybe 30 years ago French flair, but not in the modern game," says Noves. "It is not about having a French identity in terms of our style. In terms of our pride for the team, for our supporters, for the jersey, yes.

"We do want to give people pleasure and I think a little bit of that had been lost. I had a project in mind when I came in, for sure, and we are progressing. But it is not about a French style. It is about a rugby style.

"At the highest level a team has to cope with everything and do everything. Scrum, line-out, maul, breakdown, everything.


"New Zealand are proficient at all that. England too. And France, we are working hard on it. The oval ball game is like that. It is complex.

"You have got to get the ball and then make it work for you, go through long sequences or strike hard if the chance is there.

"You have to be in the moment. You need power and you need pace. That is le beau rugby, when you can do it all. Last year we got the players on our wavelength. Now we must strive to make things happen."

Today would be a perfect opportunity. Crunch time.

England - M Brown; J May, J Joseph, O Farrell, E Daly; G Ford, B Youngs; J Marler, D Hartley (capt), D Cole; J Launchbury; C Lawes; M Itoje, T Wood, N Hughes. Reps: J George, M Mullan, K Sinckler, T Harrison, J Haskell, D Care, B Te'o, J Nowell.

France - S Spedding; N Nakaitaci, R Lamerat, G Fickou, V Vakatawa; C Lopez, B Serin; C Baille, G Guirado (capt), U Atonio; S Vahaamahina, Y Maestri; D Chouly, K Gourdon, L Picamoles. Reps: C Maynadier, R Slimani, X Chiocci, A Iturria, L Goujon, M Machenaud, J-M Doussain, Y Huget.

Ref - A Gardner (ARU)

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