Monday 14 October 2019

'They have learned from their mistakes'

Brunel names unchanged side and France great Betsen senses opportunity

France head coach Jacques Brunel sticks with a tried and tested squad for Ireland. Photo by Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images
France head coach Jacques Brunel sticks with a tried and tested squad for Ireland. Photo by Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

"My soul is shaken."

Four words expressed the shattered senses of Serge Betsen as "le crunch" turned into "le crush" at Twickenham last month.

Following on from the unprecedented concession of a lead against Wales on day one, the legendary flanker's desolation seemed complete.

Once tagged as 'la Faucheuse' - the Grim Reaper - because of his destructive tackling, it now seemed he was witnessing the slow death of the team he so proudly represented on 63 occasions and at two World Cups.

All England possessed was, he felt, a strategy and a belief, shared equally amongst players and staff; deep down, he knew France had the players too, except without common objective or conviction.

Others shared his frustration; some within the current squad too, albeit not all have survived the subsequent month as, once more, the French predictably provoke a mini-revolution in the midst of a tournament.

One month on, almost as if à la recherche du temps perdu, this rugby nation is at peace with itself and the dramatic change has been confirmed by an almost as spectacular lack of change. Embattled coach Jacques Brunel, besieged by current players within and former players without, has belatedly sought stability, naming an unaltered French side for the first time in his reign (Guy Noves, his predecessor, last did so in November 2017).

And so, instead of playing all the right players but not necessarily in the right order, the players have demanded - on and off the pitch - for the right to emulate their spectacular display against the Scots last time out.

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Betsen speaks before the team is announced but nonetheless cautiously anticipated that it would be so. "C'est dans la tête," as they say in France. It's all in the mind. Only then can they free their bodies.

"It will be a challenge for France to win in Ireland," says the former Biarritz and Wasps great. "It could be 50-50 but we need to have our minds and strategy in order to challenge their game-plan and bring some disruption to the Irish. That will be key.

"If we can focus on that, and are consistent in terms of ambition, and with a good set-piece, we have a serious team on the table to challenge them.

"I don't think it is 100pc they will win but if they have that drive to challenge Ireland they can produce a performance. We are very strong up front and we can disrupt them in scrum and lineout."

He unwittingly echoes Brunel who confidently assessed yesterday that his side can expose the Irish weaknesses as England did on the opening weekend, with vibrant youth allowed expression, not repression.

"I was happy to see the reactions of the youngsters. Thomas Ramos. Antoine Dupont. Romain Ntamack. And the desire of the experienced players. Guilhem Guirado. Louis Picamoles.

"They reacted really well from the defeat to England and hopefully they will carry on the same way.

"But we don't know. All the time it is a 50-50 game but it was just nice to see that we are still capable of challenging other countries. Now is a good opportunity to go to Dublin and try to do something special.

"The important thing is that they learned from their mistakes against England firstly. But they also tried to get the speed up at the breakdown, get quick ball.

"You see the try from Ntamack against Scotland, an amazing try from a counter-attack, it showed what this team are capable of.

"It's a matter of getting that confidence and trying to play that sort of rugby."

Conflict

How long this renaissance may last is anyone's guess; the conflict between club and country remains, ensuring political battles have always superseded sporting ones.

"It's not been enjoyable to be a French rugby fan, it has been difficult. It's important to get the governing body behind the players in order to get them in the right conditions to play at their best.

"There is a lot of conflict between the federation and the clubs, we know that. But we need to find a way to get people to understand that without a strong national team it is always going to be a difficult challenge for everyone.

"We are not far from that, we are the most consistent team in World Cups, the most successful in terms of reaching the knockouts without winning it.

"But we have never won that bloody trophy. France deserve to win it and I strongly believe we have the potential to make it happen.

"We have the funding. We have the talent. We have it all. We just need to get things right to make it happen."

Betsen, his soul reawakened, knows all his compatriots must stem the habit of getting things wrong.

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