Thursday 13 December 2018

Tony Ward: The French disconnection

Club game's dominance means France national side is a pale shadow of what it was but Ireland should take nothing for granted in Paris

The iconic Serge Blanco of France in action against Ireland during the Five Nations clash at Lansdowne Road February 19, 1983 - Ireland won 22-16. Photo: Getty Images
The iconic Serge Blanco of France in action against Ireland during the Five Nations clash at Lansdowne Road February 19, 1983 - Ireland won 22-16. Photo: Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Back in 1987 at the inaugural World Cup there was a banquet held ahead of the ball so to speak,a dinner for the competing nations before we headed to our respective bases throughout New Zealand and Australia to prepare for the main event.

It was a lavish affair as rugby didn't do anything by half when it came to the social side of things back then. Bear in mind too that the International Rugby Board was still courting its constituent members towards the very concept of a World Cup at that point in time. Let's just say that we, well the IRFU, were dragged kicking and screaming into that initial World Cup.

My abiding memory of that pre-tournament dinner wasn't the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which I'm pretty sure was excellent, but to this day remains the French squad's dining attire.

While every other competing nation turned up in their number ones - shirt, tie and blazer or for the Island teams their national dress - the French were, well, so typically French.

They arrived in jeans and open-necked shirt and to a man looked pure class. It wasn't a snub, it wasn't arrogance, it wasn't laddishness. It was just the French being so typically French and doing their rugby thing in that unique Gallic way. Their dress code reflected their rugby playing style. They were the fashion setters, the trail blazers - both on and off the field.


Given what we've witnessed since the game went professional in 1995, it must be extremely difficult for this generation of fans to connect with just how brilliant yet equally successful were the French in those days. Bear in mind that for a nation who have won the Five/Six Nations 17 times in their history, the last in 2010, since finishing runner-up the following year they have not finished higher than fourth, hitting rock bottom when ending up sixth and last (behind Italy) in 2013.

There are myriad reasons why this has come about. The game in France (like England) is run by the clubs unlike every other Union/Federation where the governing body exercises full control over its contracted elite. We may not like the extent to which David Nucifora and Joe Schmidt sometimes go about keeping the best at home but it is equally difficult to argue any alternative given the demise of French rugby in particular.

What we are witnessing through the Top 14 is akin to the Premier League in football in all but name whereby the exercise for most fans every week is in finding the Englishman (or indeed Scot, Welsh or Irish for that matter). The knock-on effect at the highest level of English soccer has been devastating as that single World Cup win in 1966 (for the country that invented the game) fully reflects.

In the Top 14, the Mourad Boudjellals of this world rule, with the FFR (French Federation) consistently playing catch-up. Club owners have no interest in the good of the national game. It is all about Toulon (or whoever) and self, although not necessarily in that order. England manages, through sheer weight of playing numbers, and in France it's just about the same. Professionalism has made Irish rugby a much more competitive force. Once the IRFU made the decision upon the game going open to bring the then-departing elite back home under a centrally contracted arrangement, the handling of the pro game through Lansdowne Road has been close to exemplary with the Irish model the envy of competing Unions everywhere.

The downside at international level has been the demise of French rugby and not just in winning terms. To be honest, given the way they now play the game - a mirror image of their clubs - until they change the system from within I hope they never again set the winning standard for the other five sides in this great tournament.

As you read this I am in Paris where I have come every alternate year since first playing at the old Parc des Princes back in 1978.

I used to relish this fixture home and away but particularly the latter because you knew in advance that if you lost (more when) it would be to the most exhilarating brand of running rugby.

As a player, you dared not kick away loose ball because you knew for certain what would follow.

Great French names Jean Michel Aguirre, Serge Blanco, Roland Bertranne, Jean Baptiste Lafond, Vincent Clerc, Philippe Sella, Patrice Lagisquet, Jo Maso, Didier Camberabero, Franck Mesnel, Pierre Berbizier, Jacques Fouroux, Jerome Gallion, Fabien Galthie, Robert Paparemborde, Alain Paco, Gerard Cholley, Jean Claude Skrela, Jean Pierre Rives, Jean Pierre Bastiat, Jean Luc Joinel, Abdelatif Benazzi they just trip off the tongue and there were so many more.

Great individuals, world-class players but it was also the strength of the collective. Only the Welsh of the 1970s, the Wallabies of the eighties and the All Blacks of more recent vintage have come close to winning with the same swagger.

You could have four French players - backs or forwards - squeezed into the five-yard tram-line and through quick hands and deft passing they would create an overlap. It was pure magic.

Or when they ran at you in midfield it was that unique, and I mean unique, ability to pull a pass deep but the sympathy of the handling allied to the acceleration of the receiver would create a hole where none existed. It was the French preserve.

Fast forward and what we witness now is French bish-bash-wallop and the annihilation of flair. They are far from alone. Indeed we are well capable of doing it too but to come from total rugby based on lock-picking to round-the-corner door-breaking is sad in the extreme. It is the end product of a club game that is based on self-interest.

French clubs aren't going to stop chasing foreign players ahead of emerging indigenous talent because they don't care about the international game. Fact is that French clubs hold the power. Thank God for the IRFU. And I mean that.

But world rugby needs French rugby to be strong. Who would have believed that an Ireland side could be travelling to Paris ranked third in the world taking on Les Bleus rated nine? Does it mean we will win today? Of course not.

We could and hopefully will but I would dearly love to do so on the back of a home performance with relative young guns like Arthur Iturria, Kevin Gourdon, Geoffrey Palis, Matthieu Jalibert, Adrien Pelissie, Dany Priso, Cedate Gomes Sa and Marco Tauleigne offering a different route to the future.

Former coach Philippe Saint-André (another great worthy of inclusion in the list of legends) has pointed to better preparation this time (specifically a two-week squad build-up) allied to the entire group staying together for the full duration rather than returning to their clubs during the two tournament breaks.

Increasing familiarity through European competition for the provinces helped break down the psychological barriers of old when travelling to Saint Denis on international call. Irish rugby is in a good place under the watch of the most meticulous coach in our rugby-playing history.

Form and evidence points to Ireland being justifiable favourites ahead of today's big kick-off. To that add the most complete half-back pairing in northern hemisphere rugby and on the assumption that Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton deliver to order then the winning start we all crave is well within our capability.

Remember Murrayfield 2017 will be the final call to arms from Rory Best. And much though I loathe their style in recent years, my respect for the French game and its strength in depth if not quality is no different now than ever. Much like the RWC dinner back in '87, we long for that panache, although preferably in Edinburgh in eight days' time. Ireland by six (20-14)

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